Ellen Gilchrist

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Jeanie Thompson and Anita Miller Garner (essay date Fall 1983)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6153

SOURCE: “The Miracle of Realism: The Bid for Self-Knowledge in the Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 101-14.

[In the following essay, Thompson discusses where the search for self-knowledge leads several of Gilchrist's protagonists.]

Few writers can achieve with a first collection of short stories published by a university press the kind of instant popular success and critical acclaim Ellen Gilchrist won with In the Land of Dreamy Dreams: Not only did it immediately sell out its first printing, the collection was literally the talk of New Orleans, selling many copies by word of mouth and winning for its author a substantial contract with a notable publisher for a novel and another collection of stories. Gilchrist’s regional success has been explained in much the same way the regional success of writers like Walker Percy, Eudora Welty and, more recently, John Kennedy Toole has been explained: that is, readers in the South cannot resist the descriptions of settings, landscapes, dialects and societies which, love them or not, are easily recognizable as home. Yet, like these writers, Gilchrist writes fiction that is more than regional. Indeed, if it is regional, it is so in the sense that the works of Dostoyevsky and Flaubert are regional, which is to say that it represents not regionalism so much as the successful capturing of a social milieu. Gilchrist captures the flavor and essence of her region without drowning in its idiom. She does not diminish her work by parroting already established Southern voices or depending upon stereotypes of landscapes and character. The view that Gilchrist gives us of the world is a very straight and narrow path of realism, traditional fiction peopled with characters whom life doesn’t pass by, characters who lust and kill and manipulate, and most importantly, dream.

The focus of Gilchrist’s realism in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, as well as in her novel, The Annunciation is the female psyche, for Gilchrist puts us deeply inside a female point of view in eleven of the fourteen stories as well as in much of the novel. Even in “Rich,” “The President of the Louisiana Live Oak Society,” and “Suicides,” stories in which she employs a more nearly omniscient point of view, her narrators still manage to sound as if they are characters in her stories. (Gilchrist similarly manipulates the point of view in The Annunciation, making us privy to the minds of various characters as well as the protagonist, Amanda McCamey.) In “The President of the Louisiana Live Oak Society,” the narrator’s eye and voice are those of a woman confiding to her friend in a beauty salon, much like Flannery O’Connor’s omniscient narrators who often sound like the “Georgia crackers” who people her stories. The result of an intense focus on the female point of view and a shortage of three-dimensional male characters will undoubtedly result in charges by some of Gilchrist’s lack of range. Fortunately, the placement of “Rich” as the first story in the collection presents Tom Wilson, perhaps the only fully rounded male character in the book. The glimpses we are given of his coming to terms with a hatred of his difficult daughter Helen, are some of the most poignant and human scenes in the collection. Yet, when we put all the stories together, add up all the views the reader gets of the female mind, the composite suggests that Gilchrist’s treatment of women is very traditional and in several areas resembles that of her predecessors.

Like at least two Grandes Dames of Southern...

(This entire section contains 6153 words.)

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fiction, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, Gilchrist evidences a type of Romantic Calvinism in her view of women. On one hand, she seems delighted with the idea of innate depravity, while on the other she seems convinced that a woman’s life is often like an extended downhill sled ride, starting out with much promise for excitement and speed, but troubled by ill-placed obstacles, icy spots, and a fizzle at the end. For example, Gilchrist likes to show her young protagonists as simultaneously wonderful and horrible. In “Traveler,” LeLe prefers telling lies to telling the truth, concocting wild tales to tell her summer companions about her social success back in Indiana, when in fact she has just lost a bid for cheerleader. When her cousin Baby Gwen Barksdale greets LeLe at the train station, LeLe tells her that “practically the whole football team” saw her off at the station back home, and then she creates a melodramatic tale about a college boy she supposedly dates who is dying of cancer. LeLe’s sloth is shown through her failure to face up to the real cause of her obesity. She does not feel guilty for all of the lies she tells. In fact, the only emotion akin to guilt she feels is the remorse she experiences for eating vanilla ice cream directly out of the carton while the freezer door stands open, something she is sure Sirena the maid knows about and holds against her. Yet for all of LeLe’s exaggerations and lies, the reader cannot fail to be charmed by her sheer spunk when she swims the five miles across the lake with Fielding, her summer crush, and exuberantly realizes that she has created an identity for herself. “I was dazzling. I was LeLe Arnold, the wildest girl in the Mississippi Delta, the girl who swam Lake Jefferson without a boat or a life vest. I was LeLe, the girl who would do anything” (151). LeLe’s exaggerations sound as if she has listened too often to Scarlett O’Hara’s lines inGone With the Wind, but her gutsy actions are more reminiscent of Katherine Anne Porter’s Miranda stories, stories in which the female characters gain more than petty desires and whims by their actions. What LeLe gains by swimming the lake has much in common with what Miranda’s idol, Aunt Amy, gains by riding off to Mexico astride a horse in “Old Mortality.” Just as Miranda’s dull life is reshaped by this socially rebellious event, LeLe cannot forget when she returns to hum-drum Indiana how “the water turned into diamonds in [her] hands” that day (153).

In “Revenge,” Gilchrist uses the same pattern with success. Rhoda is only ten years old when she is sent with all of her brothers and male cousins, five in all, to spend the summer with their grandmother during World War II. Rhoda’s language is spicy and her thoughts are full of how sweet it would be to get even with the hateful boys who constantly ignore and diminish her abilities. Rhoda is particularly angry about the fact that the boys will not allow her to participate in the building of the Broad Jump Pit, and she calls vicious remarks to them from the distance at which they keep her. Secretly she begins to pray that the Japanese will win the war so that they will come and torture her tormentors. She puts herself to sleep at night imagining their five tiny wheelchairs lined up in a row while she rides around by her father’s side in his Packard. In short, Rhoda’s spirit is eaten alive with envy and bitterness, hate and anger. Yet she gets her revenge and a miraculous boost for her self-image when she sneaks away from her cousin Lauralee’s wedding festivities to strip off her plaid formal and vault over the barrier pole at the Broad Jump Pit. Rhoda imagines “half the wedding” is calling her name and climbing over the fence to get her when she runs down the path in the light of the moon to sail victoriously over the barrier. The Romantic vision of this early success is amplified by Rhoda’s last thought: “Sometimes I think whatever has happened since has been of no real interest to me” (124). This line does a great deal to separate Rhoda from other depraved and naughty young female protagonists such as Carson McCullers’s Frankie Addams in A Member of the Wedding or Flannery O’Connor’s child protagonist in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.”

Indeed, in story after story Gilchrist’s grown-up female protagonists are living life after the Fall. She in fact reworks the pattern in The Annunciation, though with a different result. In “There’s a Garden of Eden,” Alisha Terrebone decides that although she has always been a renowned beauty, her preeminence is drawing to a close. Alisha perceives herself to be “soft and brave and sad, like an old actress” (43). Like many of Gilchrist’s characters, she becomes to others what she perceives herself to be. She is painfully aware of the folly of her life, nonetheless, knowing that inevitably her present lover will leave her. She thinks, “And that is what I get for devoting my life to love instead of wisdom” (47).

In their downhill journey through life, the protagonists of these stories run into obstacle after obstacle to mar their gorgeous, effortless journeys. In “1957, a Romance,” Rhoda fears another pregnancy and cannot face what she perceives as the ugliness of her body. In the title story, LaGrande McGruder finds her obstacle in the form of “That goddamn little new-rich Yankee bitch,” a crippled, social-climbing Jewish woman who forces LaGrande to cheat if she wants to win in a game of tennis, the only thing important in LaGrande’s life other than her integrity and pride at being at least a third-generation member of the New Orleans Lawn Tennis Club. In “The President of the Louisiana Live Oak Society,” Lelia McLaurin’s life tumbles into chaos as the trappings of the social revolution of the sixties—blacklights, marijuana, and pushers—trickle down into her adolescent son Robert’s life and then into her own carefully ordered home. Lelia’s buffer from such madness and social unrest is to visit her hairdresser, who shares Lelia’s psychiatrist and who creates for Lelia a hairdo that resembles a helmet.

Thus in gathering for the reader a whole cast of female characters in various stages of life, with the character Rhoda appearing by name in four of the stories, Gilchrist achieves a kind of coherence of style and voice that is absent from many first collections of short fiction. She invites us to compare these women with each other and determine whether or not the sum of their experiences adds up to more than just their individual lives. The result is a type of social commentary that pervades the work, full of sadness and futility. By dividing the collection into sections, Gilchrist emphasizes how “place” has affected these females’ lives, and how what has been true in the past may exist nowhere other than in dreams in the future. The rural and genteel Mississippi in which Matille and the very young Rhoda summer seems to offer little preparation for the life in which Rhoda finds herself in 1957, in North Carolina with a husband and two small sons and the fear of a third child on the way. Clearly nothing in LaGrande McGruder’s life has prepared her for the disruption of a society she has always known, nor for the encroachment of dissolution upon her territory. Similarly, Lelia McLaurin’s only plan for escape is a weekend spent with her husband on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, just as they used to do in the old days, driving to Biloxi with a shaker full of martinis.

With the creation of Amanda McCamey, the female protagonist in her new novel, The Annunciation, Gilchrist may be reversing the trend set by Rhoda, LeLe, Matille, even LaGrande McGruder and Lelia McLaurin. Amanda is possibly Gilchrist’s first female protagonist who may be elevated to the class of hero. Although Amanda has in common with her “sisters” a penchant for the downhill slide, a heavy cargo of guilt, and a similar Mississippi Delta/New Orleans background, she redeems herself with an honest attempt to flee “the world of guilt and sorrow,” to borrow a phrase from Flannery O’Connor, by literally asserting her will against the forces that would slow her down in her bid for a self-directed, meaningful life.

Amanda is the central focus of the novel, most of which is narrated in a close third person through her perceptions, though occasionally Gilchrist, like O’Connor, dips into the consciousnesses of other characters for a balancing effect. Still, it is Amanda’s story, her quest to know who she is and how to live her life that is the main theme of the novel.

The Annunciation is divided into three sections: “Cargo,” “Exile,” and “The Annunciation,” the latter being about four times as long as the second, which is twice as long as the first. This structure invites questions: What is Amanda’s “cargo”? From what or whom and to where is she exiled? Is “the annunciation” intended as a scriptural parallel? If not, is it used ironically?

Amanda’s “cargo” we learn is in part her guilt over a child born out of wedlock and given up for adoption when Amanda is just fourteen. In the second section of the novel, it is revealed that her daughter, adopted by a wealthy New Orleans family, the Allains, has married and is living on State Street only blocks from Amanda. Eventually their paths cross: Amanda and Barrett Allain Clare pass each other on the way to the ladies room at Antoine’s one evening, and later when Amanda sees Barrett fighting with her husband Charles she almost intervenes. Still later, they are even introduced to one another by a mutual friend. Though their relationship is profound, mother and daughter can’t and don’t recognize one another.

Growing up in the same small Mississippi county, Issaquena, which figured prominently in at least three of the short stories, Amanda is drawn from an early age to her athletic, darkly handsome first cousin Guy. They seem to be the pride of the stock on Esperanza plantation, and as children they develop an intense loyalty that later blossoms into sexual attraction when they are adolescents.1 When Guy is eighteen and a football sensation in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and Amanda a precocious fourteen year old, she seduces Guy. Though she desires him physically, she also feels a spiritual need to keep him near. As they make love for the first time she thinks, “Guy is ours. … Guy belongs to us” (14). She dreads the thought of him leaving for college because it will mark the end of their childhood together and the relationship they have had. It also heralds, ultimately, the close of their direct ties with the place they were reared, the Mississippi Delta. Unfortunately, Amanda becomes pregnant and is sent to a Catholic home for unwed mothers in New Orleans. This is the beginning of “what she must carry with her always. Her cargo” (15). From then on she is irretrievably split from Guy, and, for a good part of her life, from herself. The fact that the baby girl she delivers by Caesarian section is taken from her, remembered as a slick, slippery thing with eyes squeezed shut, haunts her throughout the novel.

“Now you can be a girl again,” Sister Celestine tells Amanda as she prepares to leave New Orleans for Virginia Seminary (20). But, of course, Amanda has been initiated into the adult world, though she only dimly perceives it through her obsessions with pleasures of the body and her own vanity; there is to be no return to girlhood. Although later Guy drives to meet her at school, it is clear that a continued relationship with him is out of the question. Amanda’s cargo, then, also is loss—loss of her home place, her closest friend and lover, Guy, and her first child.

Amanda’s period of “exile” takes place in New Orleans, the land of dreamy dreams, where she enters Uptown society by marrying Malcolm Ashe, a wealthy Jewish management lawyer. Their childless marriage is further marred by Amanda’s alcoholism—a state that existed prior to their union. In the “Exile” chapters, Gilchrist covers some of the same territory traversed in the New Orleans society exposé stories of In the Land of Dreamy Dreams: the Junior League women, the politically corrupt men, materialism of the rankest sort, “good” schools, worried children, class consciousness, racism, and sterility. Amanda eventually sobers up, awakening to realize that these people either hate each other or themselves. “What am I doing here?” (69), she wonders but, until she stops drinking, she can’t find her way out of the maze.

Amanda’s ticket out of town is the interest that she develops in language translation while pursuing a degree at Tulane University. Chiefly with the support of her black maid, her friend and “ally” Lavertis, Amanda is able to stop drinking and find the encouragement to go to school. Also at this time, Amanda and Guy have a brief reunion at their grandmother’s funeral at Esperanza, which they will jointly inherit. They are drawn together again through grief and “the old desire”; they even leave the post-funeral gathering in Guy’s car and end up making love in the rain. But when they discuss the daughter that neither of them knows, it is obvious that Guy is obsessed with locating the girl and is no happier than Amanda.

Amanda’s exile is both literal and metaphorical. Exiled from her home territory, the family plantation, Esperanza, in Mississippi, she has not yet found her second home, Fayetteville, Arkansas. On a figurative level, she is exiled from herself through her drinking and also in her lack of knowledge as to who she is and what she should do with her life. Childless, without a career, the wife of a rich man, living with guilt over her daughter, Amanda is in despair most of the time. Yet one of the main themes of The Annunciation is Amanda’s bid for freedom through self-knowledge. During their time alone at their grandmother’s funeral, Guy offers to leave his wife and take Amanda some place where they can be happy. Amanda, who is waking up from a dream of happy-endings, refuses his offer, saying, “all I’m really trying to do is find out what I’m good at. So I can be a useful person, so I can have some purpose” (60). When Guy says he can give her anything “that goddamn ingratiating Jew” can give her, she replies that she’s not interested in money. “I want something else,” she tells Guy. “Something I don’t know the name of yet” (59).

Eventually, Amanda gets a chance to name her desire. She becomes involved in translating a manuscript smuggled out of the Vatican and put into the hands of Marshall Jordon, a seventy plus year old translation scholar from the writing program at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Ironically, Amanda will translate a manuscript of poems in middle French by a poet named Helene Renoir, who also had an illegitimate child, was sent away to live with nuns, and who chose to hang herself at age twenty-one. It is Amanda’s involvement with this project, her separation and eventual divorce from Malcolm, and her move to Fayetteville to start a new life as a single, working woman that constitute her deliverance from exile. Thus the stage is set for her “annunciation.”

Arriving in Fayetteville with all the best intentions of living alone, Amanda starts out well, and her new ally, Katie Dunbar, an extremely strong, positive female counter-psyche for Amanda, stands by her throughout her emergence into wholeness. The theme of freedom is highlighted when on the first night alone in her new home, after the guests have gone, Amanda must bravely face exactly what it was she wanted: solitude. A poignant moment occurs in which we see Amanda summoning her power for courage:

This is it, she thought. This is what I dreamed of. The old sugar maples outside the window moved in the wind, sending shadows onto the wall behind her. That doesn’t scare me, she thought. Nothing scares me. That’s only the wind I’m watching. That wind has traveled around the world a million times to be with me. That wind was alive when Helene Renoir walked the earth.


But Amanda is still Amanda, and soon she is restless, bored and lonely. Though she has learned that freedom is necessary for her work, the isolation of freedom is hard to take. Before long she becomes involved with Will Lyons, a twenty-five year old local guitar player who gives her pure joy and lets her believe she wants to love again. The night after she first goes to bed with him, she menstruates for the first time in months, and believes Will has “touched the part of [her] that wants to live” (164). Once again Amanda’s nameless desire seems close to articulation.

The tug between real, joyous, even stormy love and the need to accomplish her work is a fierce struggle for Amanda, and it is further complicated by money: her abundance of it and Will’s complete lack of it. Not surprisingly, her translations play second fiddle when her young lover comes “breezing in and put[s] his hands on her hair” (191). Later, when they are swimming in a local river, she is unafraid to show off her older woman’s body. She strips and swims alone in the water. Will, impatient, young, is soon ready to leave, but Amanda dives far and deep, as if away from him and all the world, perhaps even herself. Their relationship is fraught with paradoxes.

On a spring white water canoe trip down the Buffalo in Arkansas, Amanda and Will make love on a rocky beach in the middle of the night. Earlier in the day, Amanda had felt a “sharp pain low on her left side”—“the old quirky pain of ovulation.” On their way home after their night on the beach, Amanda and Will wait out a thunder storm and later, when Amanda grows “bored with the river” and fails to pay attention, she accidentally turns over the canoe. She and Will are spilled out into treacherous white water. In a bluntly brutal yet lyric passage, Amanda encounters Death. Her own mortality seems about to sweep her away, and she appears willing to surrender to it—presumably just as she has conceived for the first time in thirty years! The passages of conception and the nearness of death are surprisingly similar and bear comparison, foreshadowing as they do the nearly simultaneous birth of the child and the death of Will in the last pages of the novel. In each, lyricism heightens the narrative:

Amanda woke in the night. There was mist all over the water and the little rock peninsula. She stirred in Will’s arms, moving her body against his until she woke him. Then, half asleep on the hard bed of the earth they made love as softly as ever they could in the world. Love me, Amanda’s body sang. Dance with me, his body answered. Dance with me, dance with me, dance with me.

Now, the darkness demanded. And Amanda surrendered herself to the darkness and the river and the stars.


A very similar demand darkly presents itself to Amanda when the canoe overturns less than twenty-four hours later:

Everything in the world was cold green water, so cold, so very cold. The whole world was singing in a higher key. She could not breathe, the pressure of the water against her chest was so deep, so hard and dark and cold and full. I am here forever, she thought. This is what it is to die, this pressure, this powerlessness. Then Amanda let go of fear, surrendered, gave in to the water, gave in to her death.


Amanda does not give in, however; something impells her to save herself. One can perhaps conclude that the life inside her has done this; at any rate, Amanda is destined to survive, unlike Helene Renoir, her role model from another life.

Soon after their bittersweet canoe trip, Will strikes out to solve his money troubles by working on an off-shore oil rig. Some time later, Amanda learns that she is pregnant and writes to Will, telling him of her pregnancy, and also that she has learned her daughter’s name and whereabouts from Guy. On his way back to Fayetteville to see his child, Will (who dreams of literally giving children to Amanda) stops in New Orleans to tell Barrett Clare that her mother is alive and well and loves her. Though Will never makes it home, this gift, given impulsively as befits his youthfulness, surely immortalizes him for Amanda.

Gilchrist’s choice of The Annunciation as a title for her novel about a woman who, after giving up one child at age fourteen, gives birth to a son thirty years later on Christmas Eve leads one to question how closely the novelist intends to parallel the biblical annunciation. Perhaps the author is playing with this motif, suggesting a modern version of “miracle.” If one goes to what is considered by many to be the loveliest of the four gospels, St. Luke, and reads the disciple’s account of Mary’s annunciation, some parallels can be seen to Gilchrist’s novel. However, a word of warning is in order at the outset: while this approach sheds interesting light on Gilchrist’s structure and helps clarify certain details in The Annunciation, the main character’s hardline stand against organized Christianity, and the Roman Catholic church in particular, makes the possibility of the author’s intention to render a strict biblical reference or allegory highly unlikely. Neither is Gilchrist satirizing Christianity; rather, she takes what she needs to shape her narrative. Still, what she appears to need of the New Testament is quite revealing.

To begin with, Amanda is told of her pregnancy by a masseuse who has looked into her eye and seen “a little configuration.” This “unwashed hippie doctor of the hills with his gorgeous tan,” is, coincidentally, named Luke. After learning her amazing news, Amanda plays briefly with the idea that Luke is “the angel of the Annunciation.” Somewhat comically, she imagines that he has almost struck a classical pose of the annunciation angel: “His hands were folded at his chest. He might have dropped to one knee” (279). In addition, she notices that she is wearing the Virgin’s colors, “blue shorts, white T-shirt,” and calls herself “Maria Amanda Luisa, the gray-blue virgin of the middleweights.” Luke’s words, “a special case. A very special child,” ring for her, and she wonders whether her young lover Will is her “Joseph leading the donkey.” But Amanda puts her feet back on the earth when she admits that “he is not here. … I have not even heard from him and there is no donkey” (279). Amanda, the High Blasphemer, decides that “it’s time to think straight,” and so for the moment she ends her flirtation with outright scriptural comparisons.2

A fiction writer might be understandably attracted to the gospel of Luke, the “storyteller,” who is interested above all in people and especially women. It is in Luke’s gospel that human beings speak most eloquently and dramatically, often breaking into songs. As Mary Ellen Chase points out in The Bible and the Common Reader, Luke alone includes in his Gospel the Magnificat of Mary. In addition, Luke is known to biblical scholars and readers as a setter of scenes and a chronicler of homely details.3

Like the Virgin Mary, Amanda has a close relationship with a female companion, Katie Dunbar. For Mary it is the mother of John, Elisabeth (who also experienced a miracle), and it is in her presence that Mary sings of the angel’s visitation and her joy. Though there isn’t a strict parallel to this in The Annunciation, Amanda is comforted repeatedly by the “experienced” and wise Katie at the potter’s home. Finally, one notes that St. Luke refers to Judea as “hill country” and Gilchrist sets her final portion of the book, “The Annunciation,” in the hills of northwest Arkansas.

Perhaps a more productive comparison to make, however, is the fact that Mary’s news comes to her as a disturbing revelation, and Amanda is likewise extremely troubled by her unexpected pregnancy. She is unmarried, forty-four years old, presumably has experienced an early menopause, and is about to embark upon a possibly auspicious career as a translator of middle French and as a writer. The prospect of having a baby and the ensuing duties of motherhood appear to stand directly in her path toward self-determination. Gilchrist deals with a sharply realistic situation: a woman who perhaps must choose between a career and motherhood, options which until this point have both been closed to Amanda. She struggles with the conflict, and even goes to Tulsa for an abortion, but then she changes her mind, gets drunk to celebrate and has to be taken care of by the Good Samaritan Katie. At this point Amanda seems to have reached a low point, but like Mary, she comes to believe that nothing is impossible and so decides to have the child.

As if sensing that this birth will help ease the guilt with which she has lived for thirty years, Amanda joyfully prepares for labor in her go-for-broke style, “training like she was going out for the Olympics,” Katie observes (344).4 Finally, although the word “obey” seems an odd one for Amanda McCamey, she does in some sense obey a law of nature by not having the abortion. Like Mary, she acquieses to motherhood. Though what Amanda does may not be said to have strictly to do with grace in the Christian sense, she does redeem herself by being able to give life, through her son, and therefore forgive herself of her sins. Here, then, is the novel’s central theme: Amanda’s life-long search for love and acceptance and peace.

Amanda achieves a form of heroism by overcoming her alcoholism and to a certain extent, her materialism, and by giving of herself through her late-life motherhood. The favor that she seeks through learning how to live her life is won through hard circumstances, and will be won anew through even harder days to come as she learns of Will’s death and as she seeks her daughter, an event that will surely take place given Will’s visit to State Street and Amanda’s nearly simultaneous resolve to meet the young woman, Barrett Clare.

As parents of Barrett Clare, Amanda and Guy must face what proves “desperately hard”: their act of incest (they were first cousins) and their ultimate responsibility to identify and subsequently love their child, a responsibility from which they can no longer run or hide.5 The question remains whether Guy and Amanda ever achieve true, lasting heroism. For Guy, it is not so clear cut. With a great deal of money and power within his reach, the first step toward facing his daughter is easily taken when he asks a rich New Orleans politico to find out about the girl’s fate. When handed the information, however, Guy asks to have it summarized for him; he can’t bear to read it. Later, he visits the New Orleans Lawn Tennis Club and watches his daughter play a match “as if she were a tennis-playing machine.” He sees his grandson, a “wild fat little red-headed boy” and feels deeply the need to know this child also. Yet Guy can’t approach Barrett alone; he needs Amanda. By the novel’s end, Guy hasn’t yet contacted his daughter.

Amanda, on the other hand, vows to find her daughter after her son is born, though she had earlier refused to go with Guy to see their child. In the final pages, the possibility for her heroism is strongly hinted; we can believe that, buoyed by the strength which she has already gained from loving her baby son, she will have the courage to seek and acknowledge her first born.

As the novel closes, Amanda drifts to sleep shortly after delivering her son, “dreaming of herself in a white silk suit holding her beautiful daughter in her arms.” She at last has the courage to imagine the reunion a happy one, though formerly she had always dreamt of the meeting in nightmare. Perhaps at this point Amanda goes beyond courage to hubris, as she continues: “My life leading to my lands forever and ever and ever, hallowed be my name, goddammit, my kingdom come, my will be done, amen, so be it, Amanda” (353). In her blasphemy of the Lord’s Prayer, Amanda McCamey gropes toward self-respect, forgiveness and love. There is nothing irreverent in Amanda’s creation of her own liturgy as she accepts motherhood and acknowledges a degree of selflessness shortly before she goes into labor:

This is my body which is not broken by you. This is my flesh and blood. This is myself. I am going to stop being alone in the world. Already I am not alone. Already a miracle is inside of me. Already a miracle has occurred. My child, my ally, are you listening. I love you so much. I can not tell you how I love you. Be well, be whole, stay well.


Later, when the child lies peacefully in his mother’s arms, in Gilchrist’s contemporary nativity, Amanda speaks to him in words that are surely holy for the love and forgiveness they embody:

“Flesh of my flesh,” she whispered. “Bone of my bone, blood of my blood. You are kin to me,” she whispered, touching his soft hair. Kin to me, kin to me, kin to me. And the memory of the other child was there with them, but it was softer now, paler.


Guided often in her life by lust, hunger, greed, and curiosity, Amanda finally, at age forty-four, begins to direct her own life with loving intelligence: “My life on my terms, my daughter, my son” (353). The lyricism of the ending of The Annunciation is a hymn to self-determination, from which we can only wonder at the reserves of Amanda McCamey’s imagination and strength.

In her two works of fiction to date, Ellen Gilchrist portrays the workings of a complex female psyche through a variety of women of all ages. Rhoda, Matille, Alisha Terrebone, and Amanda McCamey, to name a few, are all mined from the lode of a larger consciousness which Gilchrist is working with amazing confidence. It is encouraging to see that with The Annunciation a possibility for redemption appears on the horizon for Gilchrist’s anguished but tenacious women. The writer has struck one element that may lead to a greater wealth for her characters: courage to face the truth about themselves. With this discovery, Gilchrist’s women may go further in future works to develop a realism that not only entertains but enobles.


  1. This treatment of children’s sexual awakenings is similar to the children’s sex games in “Summer, an Elegy,” in which Matille and Shelby discover sex while in bed recovering from typhoid vaccinations. Later, when Shelby dies while under anesthesia, Matille feels she has been freed from guilt and the fear that he will tell of their game, though clearly a part of her has also died, as he was her first lover.

  2. Gilchrist also toys with the notion of immaculate conception. Shortly before the birth scene, Katie Dunbar’s boyfriend Clinton asks, “What about the father?” Katie replies that “she willed it into being, all by herself out of light and air” (315). Though this is meant lightheartedly, Amanda uses the word “miracle” to describe her child only pages later.

  3. See Chase’s comments (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 284–89, on Mary in Luke’s gospel.

  4. Amanda is essentially a life-affirmer and is powered by the will to live. One should note here that her lover’s name “Will” invites a supposition that when he dies, practically at the moment she is giving birth to their son, a transference of “will” takes place.

  5. That their daughter Barrett Clare has suffered from feelings of neglect, isolation, abandonment, and despair—despite, or perhaps because of, her adoption by a wealthy New Orleans family—is made painfully apparent: she has a terrible relationship with her husband (he represents the “heartless” New Orleans society that threatened to consume Amanda) and is out of touch with herself and trying desperately to gain self-respect by playing ferocious tennis and writing anemic confessional poetry. Her links to humanity are through her psychiatrist, Gustave (an obviously one-sided infatuation based on narcissism: she believes he loves her but his job is to be interested in her) and through her love for her hyperactive son.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903

Ellen Gilchrist 1935-

American short story writer, novelist, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Gilchrist's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 34 and 48.

Gilchrist is best known for her short stories that chronicle the decline of the Southern aristocracy. Much of her fiction is set in New Orleans, a city she describes in gritty detail to contrast the idealistic hopes of her upper-class female protagonists with the harsh reality of their lives. Gilchrist's characters often reappear in different works, allowing her to examine various stages of their personal development. Gilchrist is consistently praised for her use of vivid language and dialogue, and critics have particularly noted her ability to capture the dreams and frustrations typically experienced during adolescence.

Biographical Information

Gilchrist was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1935. She spent her childhood on the Hopewell Plantation, the home of her maternal grandfather. Gilchrist left the family home at nineteen when she eloped. She subsequently divorced and married three more times before the age of thirty-two. She received her B.A. in philosophy from Milsaps College in 1967. In the 1970s, Gilchrist tried her hand at poetry and joined poet and novelist Jim Whitehead's writing class at the University of Arkansas. Gilchrist wrote poems and stories for various periodicals before publishing her first collection of short fiction, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981), with a small university press. The book caught the attention of the reading public and the literary world alike and earned her a contract with Little, Brown for another collection of short stories and a novel. She won the American Book Award for fiction for Victory over Japan (1984) and has written several other short story collections and novels, as well as a collection of essays.

Major Works

The stories in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams center on wealthy Southern women who escape the restrictions of their upper-class lives through unorthodox, sometimes destructive behavior. “Revenge” focuses on Rhoda Manning, a young girl who is stifled by the constraints placed on women in southern society. She is not allowed to use the pole-vaulting pit built by her brother and her male cousins because it is considered unbecoming for a girl to develop muscles. Instead she is lured to the more feminine pursuit of playing a role in her cousin's wedding. At the end of the story she rebels, triumphantly ripping off her formal dress after the wedding and vaulting across the pit. Gilchrist's first novel, The Annunciation (1983), follows the life of Amanda McCamey from her childhood on the Mississippi Delta to her married life in the familiar milieu of aristocratic New Orleans, and eventually to an artists' commune in the Ozarks. Some of the characters from In the Land of Dreamy Dreams also reappear in Gilchrist's later collection Victory over Japan, which traces the lives of several eccentric women. In this collection, the character of Rhoda Manning returns in “The Lower Garden District Free Gravity Mule Blight or Rhoda, a Fable.” In this story, Rhoda is middle-aged, recently divorced, and struggling with poverty and loneliness. She attempts to solve her problems by defrauding her insurance company and seducing her insurance representative. Other previously used characters also reappear in the stories of Drunk with Love (1986). In addition to exploring the lives of her female protagonists as they rebel against Southern social mores, this volume deals with greater social issues, such as interracial love affairs in “Memphis” and “The Emancipator.” Another story, “The Blue-Eyed Buddhist,” concludes in a manner atypical of the standard Gilchrist tale—the protagonist ends her life in a grand, self-sacrificing gesture. The novel The Anna Papers (1988) relates the experiences of Anna Hand, a dying author who wants to write her family's story in order to leave a legacy for the future. Although Anna is childless, motherhood and family are central to the narrative in this book. Net of Jewels (1992) involves Rhoda Manning once again, this time focusing on her adolescence and young adulthood. The book examines Rhoda's rebellious relationship with her parents and the Southern belle ideal. Starcarbon (1994) returns to the chronicles of the Hand family, who appeared in The Anna Papers. This time Olivia de Haviland Hand (Anna's niece) becomes the protagonist. Olivia is living in Oklahoma and struggling to reconcile her Cherokee roots with the Hand's Southern aristocracy.

Critical Reception

Gilchrist is more often praised for the style than the substance of her work. Victoria Jenkins remarks, “Ellen Gilchrist's writing tumbles and spills off the page, seemingly without effort, like a voluble cousin breathlessly bringing you up to date on the liaisons and adventures of various members of a sprawling family.” Many critics are enamored with Gilchrist's rebellious female heroines since they break the fictional mold of the typical Southern belle. Jeannie Thompson and Anita Miller Garner state, “Gilchrist captures the flavor and essence of her region without drowning in its idiom. She does not diminish her work by parroting already established Southern voices or depending upon stereotypes of landscapes and character.” However, some reviewers desire more from Gilchrist's protagonists and argue that they are in no way heroic. Such commentators complain that, barring a few exceptions, Gilchrist's characters do nothing to change the wretchedness of their lives. Dorie Larue laments, “[Gilchrist's] characters are more thought about than thought through.” Generally, Gilchrist's short fiction is more favorably received than her novels, although her work is increasingly becoming a subject for critical study.

Margaret Jones Bolsterli (essay date Spring 1988)

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SOURCE: “Ellen Gilchrist's Characters and the Southern Woman's Experience: Rhoda Manning's Double Bind and Anna Hand's Creativity,” in New Orleans' Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 7-9.

[Bolsterli is Professor of English and Director of the Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. She has written several books on the South. In the following essay, she discusses how Gilchrist presents the Southern woman's experience through her characters Rhoda Manning and Anna Hand.]

Since the experiences of any powerless class are considered less interesting than those of the powerful, one of the differences between the writing done by men and women has been the tendency for women to ignore the basic facts of their existence because it was not considered significant enough to read about. On the other hand, because of their superior status, men’s every thought, feeling or movement has been considered valid subject for literature, easy access for a writer to a vast area of material. However, the current phase of the women’s movement has brought a gradual realization that women are not powerless in their own sphere, that as Adrienne Rich’s line goes in “From an Old House in America,” “my power is brief and local, but I know my power”—and that the key to transcendence for a writer lies in validating that experience rather than in repudiating it. Because the roles of women and men have traditionally been more clearly defined in the South than in any other region of America, the experience of Southern women, so different from that of its men, is a relatively unmined goldfield. Ellen Gilchrist goes a step further than the canonical Southern women writers, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, in validating that experience because she is willing to go deeper into personality, to shine a light into the dark corners of women’s souls to expose the preoccupations that get in the way of their achieving wholeness and coherence. Moreover, she writes about the problems of the female sphere without denying the pleasures in it. Food obsessions may get in the way of happiness, but Gilchrist’s characters who have addictions also enjoy the chocolate they cannot resist.

One significant issue she examines is the difficulty of breaking out of the cocoon of the female experience into creativity. For instance, Rhoda Manning’s dilemma in “Revenge,” or “The Summer of the Broad Jump Pit,” illustrates the double bind that tied up bright little southern girls in the nineteen-forties and gave them some of the problems that are so painful to meet in many of the adolescent and adult women in her stories.1 Anna Hand, in “Anna, Part I,” shows that a woman can transcend the limitations of her experience by using it as material for art.2 Not only is that experience, after all, her capital as a writer, but she can understand what has happened to her only by making order of it in fiction, so what might, under other circumstances, be considered her limitation, becomes her passage to freedom.

“Revenge,” told in retrospect by the adult Rhoda, begins with the memory of herself as a child, sitting on top of the chicken house watching through binoculars her five male cousins running down a cinder track to pole-vault into a pit of sand and sawdust, an activity from which she is exiled because she is a girl. “I was ten years old, the only girl in a house full of cousins. There were six of us, shipped to the Delta for the summer, dumped on my grandmother right in the middle of a world war.” The societal expectations that put her at this distance from what looks to her like the most fun in the world were reiterated by her own father who, in his letter telling the boys how to construct the track on which they are to train for the Olympics, ended by instructing Rhoda’s older brother Dudley “to take good care of me as I was my father’s own sweet dear girl.” The boys follow these instructions with relish and refuse to let her help with building the track or run on it once it is finished. She is not allowed to touch the vaulting pole. As Dudley tells her, “this is only for boys, Rhoda. This isn’t a game.” Rhoda is supposed to be satisfied with playing with other little girls. In a pattern she is expected to follow for the rest of her life, she is to watch from the swing, or the roof of the chicken house, and sometimes from the fence itself, while they run and play and learn the discipline of trained athletes. As her grandmother and great-aunt point out to her, if the boys did let her train with them, all she would get for it would be big muscles that would make her so unattractive no boys would ever ask her out and she would never get a husband. Since she is bored to death by the little girl she is supposed to play with on the neighboring plantation, the only diversion she can find besides watching the boys on the track is learning to dance from the black maid.

So Rhoda’s first bind is being kept from doing what she wants most to do because she is a girl; it is the old “biology is destiny” argument dramatized on a Mississippi plantation. Little boys are encouraged to pursue activities that will prepare them for running the world while little girls are restricted to the domestic arena where they are expected to spend the rest of their lives.

The second bind, and perhaps the most pernicious one, is the fascination that this woman’s sphere comes to hold for little girls. It is so seductive that they can find themselves up to their necks in quicksand before they have felt the ground quiver underfoot. In Rhoda’s case, the seductress is her Cousin Lauralee who comes along and asks her to serve as maid of honor in her second wedding. It is more than a touch of irony that Rhoda’s mother had been matron of honor in her first excursion down the aisle. The implication is unavoidable that Rhoda is following exactly in her mother’s footsteps. She idolizes and imitates Cousin Lauralee and becomes engrossed in preparations for the wedding, trying on every dress in Nell’s and Blum’s Department Store in Greenville before the right one can be found. It is significant that Rhoda refuses to look at dresses from the girls’ department, she feels herself to be so much a part of the “ladies” world in this matter. And she is adamant in her insistence on the “right” dress.

The dress I wanted was a secret. The dress I wanted was dark and tall and thin as a reed. There was a word for what I wanted, a word I had seen in magazines. But what was that word? I could not remember.

“I want something dark,” I said at last. “Something dark and silky.”

“Wait right there,” the saleslady said. “Wait just a minute.” Then, from out of a prewar storage closet she brought a blackwatch plaid recital dress with spaghetti straps and a white piqué jacket. It was made of taffeta and rustled when I touched it. There was a label sewn into the collar of the jacket. Little Miss Sophisticate, it said. Sophisticate, that was the word I was seeking. I put on the dress and stood triumphant in the sea of ladies and dresses and hangers.


And so Rhoda, although maintaining all the while that she never will marry but will have a career instead, is caught up in preparation for the wedding, which she sees as a means of drawing the envy and admiration of the boys who have cut her out of the pole vaulting. If she cannot get their attention as an equal in their games, she will get it this way. As she later recalls the drive back from Greenville with her new dress, “All the way home I held the box on my lap thinking about how I would look in the dress. ‘Wait till they see me like this,’ I was thinking. ‘Wait till they see what I really look like.’”

The wedding itself is a disappointment. Held at the grandmother’s house, there is much less drama than Rhoda would have liked. But afterwards, at the reception, she does something that lets the real Rhoda out of the prison of the women’s trappings she has assumed for the wedding. Under the influence of a strong drink of her own concoction, she goes down to the track, takes off her formal, teaches herself to pole vault, and just as everybody from the wedding comes searching for her, she makes a perfect vault over the barrier into the pit.

In retrospect, she is not sure that anything she has done since has been of any real interest to her.

The girl is mother to the woman. This story with such two strong forces pulling at Rhoda, the male sphere with its activity and power on one hand, and the traditional woman’s sphere on the other, shows in a nutshell the difficulties that bright little girls of that generation faced. Gilchrist never implies that the experiences in the woman’s sphere are not fun. Rhoda enjoys choosing that dress and being a big shot in her cousin’s wedding, but she also wants to participate in the male world of activity and power. The dreadful part is that each area apparently excludes the other. Her choices seem to be as final as the choice of figs in Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar. To choose one means to give up the others.

This is the “vale of soul-making” of the Southern woman writer; but as Gilchrist shows in the later stories about Rhoda and Anna Hand and in her novel The Annunciation, some women do indeed finally make it through to creativity. And they do it by accepting the validity of their experience and transforming it into art.

A good example of this is Anna Hand’s realization in “Anna, Part I” that the context in which she must understand herself is not the male world of power but an adult version of the domestic sphere to which the child Rhoda was confined, and that to order it in fiction is a way to control it. Creativity emerges from the trick of combining the two pulls: one becomes material for the other. Writing is the key to transcendence.

The exclusive nature of the traditional choices for a woman can be seen in the devastating effect of love on Anna, a successful writer whose creativity has been immobilized for ten months by an affair with a married doctor. She has fallen into the pitfalls of such a relationship with her eyes wide open; at the beginning she reflects that she has, after all, already wasted five years of her life on a married man and swears she will never do it again. But she is helpless in the face of love. She is getting old, and this may be her last chance at passion. The doctor, of course, never misses a beat in his career nor in his marriage; it is only Anna’s life that is disrupted.

Ellen Gilchrist’s opinions about the relative value of the choices Anna has made are implicit in the terms she uses to describe Anna’s coming to her senses. The story begins with Anna, having realized the folly of what she has been doing, calling her editor in New York to announce that she is ready to get back to work: “It was a big day for Anna Hand. It was the day she decided to give up being a fool and go back to being a writer” (20). “… I’ve wasted ten months of my life. Ten goddam months in the jaws of love. Well, I had to do it. It’s like a cold. If you leave the house sooner or later it happens” (221). What she goes to work on is a story about the affair, “How to ring the truth out of the story, absolve sadness, transmute it, turn it into art” (223). Then Gilchrist’s technique is to follow Anna’s prescription for writing this story; she begins at the beginning of the affair, noticing everything. It is obvious that the whole thing was hopeless from the start. Not only was the doctor solidly married with no intention of leaving his wife, but Anna knew all along that there were serious, probably irreconcilable differences between them. Yet during the time of the affair she did what women are supposed to do. She ignored the fact that his sentimentality embarrassed her, for example, and let her obsession with him completely dominate her life. Her love blinded her to everything else and induced her to give up her writing, which she acknowledges as the most important thing in her life. She even entertained the impossible dream that one day they would be married and live happily ever after. The incident that breaks the spell, in fact, is that one day, when they have not been together in a while, he comes over and they have such a good time she forgets he is married, thus breaking her one ironclad rule, never to forget where she is and what she is doing. Realizing that she has fallen to this level of consciousness wakes her up; within three weeks she is home again in South Carolina putting her life back together. In other words, she goes home to return to writing, to validate her experience in art and therefore to achieve transcendence. Significantly, Anna knows that this is what she is doing.

There is a way to organize this knowledge, Anna decided. To understand what happened. This love affair, this very last love affair. In a minute I will get out of this bed and begin to understand what happened. I will pick up the telephone and call Arthur [her editor] and then I will begin to write the stories and they will tell me what is going on.

I will create characters and they will tell me my secrets. They will stand across the room from me with their own voices and dreams and disappointments. I will set them going like a fat gold watch, as Sylvia said. … I will gather my tribe around me and celebrate my birthday. There will be champagne and a doberge cake from the bakery that Cajun runs on the highway. Yes, all that for later. For now, the work before me, waiting to be served and believed in and done. My work. How I define myself in the madness of the world.


At this point, she takes control of her life by climbing out of bed, sitting down at her typewriter and beginning to write. Her subject, of course, is what she knows best: the women’s world, the love affair and her survival.


  1. Ellen Gilchrist, “Revenge,” In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (Fayetteville: Univ. of Arkansas Press, 1981) 111–24.

  2. Ellen Gilchrist, “Anna, Part I,” Drunk with Love (Boston: Little, Brown, 1986) 220–39.

Principal Works

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The Land Surveyor's Daughter (poetry) 1979

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (short stories) 1981

The Annunciation (novel) 1983

Victory over Japan (short stories) 1984

Drunk with Love (short stories) 1986

Falling through Space: The Journals of Ellen Gilchrist (essays) 1987

The Anna Papers (novel) 1988

Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle (short stories) 1989

I Cannot Get You Close Enough (short stories) 1990

Net of Jewels (novel) 1992

Starcarbon: A Meditation on Love (novel) 1994

The Age of Miracles (short stories) 1995

Nora Jane and Company (novel) 1997

Flight of Angels (short stories) 1998

J. Randal Woodland (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “New People in the Old Museum of New Orleans: Ellen Gilchrist, Sheila Bosworth, and Nancy Lemann,” in Louisiana Women Writers: New Essays and a Comprehensive Bibliography, edited by Dorothy H. Brown and Barbara C. Ewell, Louisiana State University Press, 1992, pp. 195-210.

[In the following essay, Woodland discusses how the literary tradition of New Orleans is changed and how New Orleans' society is portrayed in the fiction of Ellen Gilchrist, Sheila Bosworth, and Nancy Lemann.]

Experiences, reminiscences, episodes, picked up as only women know how to pick them up from other women’s lives,—or other women’s destinies, as they prefer to call them,—and told as only women know how to relate them; … that is what interests the women who sit of summer nights on balconies. For in those long-moon countries life is open and accessible, and romances seem to be furnished real and gratis, in order to save, in a languor-breeding climate, the ennui of reading and writing books.

—Grace King, Balcony Stories

Although an established literary tradition associated with a particular place, region, or city can be of enormous value to a writer, offering inspiration and teaching by example, it can also become an obstacle to success and a threat to the writer’s creativity. The danger is especially severe when the materials of the tradition gain such popular approval that publishers, critics, and other readers demand more of the same. Flannery O’Connor spoke to this difficulty when she described the predicament of the southern writer after Faulkner this way: “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”1 The writer who takes New Orleans as a setting faces a similar dilemma, although we might substitute Tennessee Williams’ streetcar named Desire for the Dixie Limited as the symbolic vehicle carrying these popular expectations.

George W. Gable, in his collection of stories Old Creole Days, pioneered imaginative writing about New Orleans in English. His stories of picturesque Creoles, dark secrets, and old family feuds transformed the exotic surfaces of New Orleans life into the material of fiction. The many writers who followed him gravitated to the same thematic material and descriptive motifs; consequently, by the middle of the twentieth century, the romantic idea of Old New Orleans had ossified into predictable patterns of character, image, and plot.

Much of the writing about New Orleans since Cable falls into two traditions, one focusing on the French Quarter, the other on the Garden District. The French Quarter tradition belongs largely to outsiders, who often focus on newcomers haunted by the exoticism of the Quarter. The tradition centered on the Garden District (or, more generally, Uptown New Orleans) offers a more domestic mood, focusing on manners and mores and unfolding in private places. Grace King is one founder of this tradition: she began writing to explain the ways of New Orleans to outsiders and to defend these ways against the perceived attacks of Cable, yet her fiction reveals a cautious testing of social beliefs about the roles of women and blacks. Another is Kate Chopin, who writes critically about Creole societies as an adopted insider; Edna Pontellier in The Awakening chafes against the rigid strictures of the established society.2

The Garden District tradition has particularly influenced the view of the city held by local writers and by New Orleanians themselves. This literature both grows from and contributes to a perception of upper-class New Orleans society as different and a bit precious. This perception may derive in part, as W. Kenneth Holditch has suggested, from the fact that holding center stage in this society is the glittering artifice of a Carnival ball.3 Whatever its source, this perception results in a population thought to be set apart from the rest of the world, destined for great things—unrequited love, sexual indiscretion, alcoholism, wasted potential, suicide.

In recent years, this Uptown tradition has come under close scrutiny and revision by Ellen Gilchrist, Sheila Bosworth, and Nancy Lemann; each has written a novel depicting the conflict of a central female character with this tradition; their characters and plots, and even their narrative forms, embody the confrontation with tradition. Among the three, Gilchrist’s perspective is unique: the protagonists of her fiction inhabit the margins of this society, and their conflicts with the society take place within fairly traditional narrative forms. Both Bosworth and Lemann, by contrast, offer protagonists who have grown up within this society and whose rejection of it is thus more complex. This complexity shapes unusual narrative forms that unify the rejection of social and literary traditions.

Ellen Gilchrist’s rejection of Uptown society and its literary tradition is the simplest and, at the same time, the most complete. The New Orleans residents she includes are often marginal characters themselves; to them and to Gilchrist, the shallowness of upper-class New Orleans society is clear. Her central characters can never be accepted into Uptown society, and generally would spurn such acceptance. In her novel The Annunciation (1983), a bride new to the city drives down St. Charles Avenue with her housekeeper sitting beside her; feeling a shared alienation, they imagine themselves “new people in the old museum of New Orleans, Louisiana.”4 This image serves as a useful figure for all of Gilchrist’s New Orleans fiction, which places characters new to the city’s literary tradition in conflict with the symbols and tokens of the entrenched societal tradition.

Gilchrist’s position as an outside observer who sets herself and her main characters in opposition to the Uptown society is most clearly seen in “Looking over Jordan,” a story that seems based, at least loosely, on the reception of Gilchrist’s work in New Orleans. Its two central characters are Lady Margaret Sarpie, a young woman of a distinguished but declining family who has recently chastised in print Anna Hand, the author of a scandalous book ridiculing the city; and Hand herself, who decides to add a hedonistic dimension to her book tour: “The strange lassitude of New Orleans in summer, the wine at the party, the tiredness in her bones. Why not, she thought. I’ll be gone tomorrow. Get drunk, eat sugar, get laid by a native, be here.”5 The native in question is Lady Margaret’s brother Armand, and the three are brought together in the Sarpies’ old summer home on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Through the interplay of the two women, Gilchrist aligns herself with Anna Hand in opposition to the community’s attachment to faded gentility and remembered glamour.

The title story of Gilchrist’s first collection, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981), traces the threat an outsider poses to the remnant of this gilded age. The action unfolds at a decisive moment: change has come to the New Orleans Tennis Club. Gone are the days when “waiters had brought steaming cups of thick chicory-flavored café au lait out onto the balcony with cream and sugar in silver servers”; now the members must put up with “percolated coffee in Styrofoam cups with plastic spoons and some kind of powder instead of cream.” What’s more, in order to pay the mortgage, new members have been allowed in, new members who “didn’t belong to the Boston Club or the Southern Yacht Club or Comus or Momus or Proteus.”6

One of these new members has forced a descendant of the Old Guard to break a once-inviolable code of honor: “There was no denying it. There was no undoing it. At ten o’clock that morning LaGrande McGruder, whose grandfather had been president of the United States Lawn Tennis Association, had cheated a crippled girl out of a tennis match.”7 LaGrande’s opponent, Roxanne, is one of the nouveau members; the fact that she and her husband are Jewish makes them even less welcome. The story opens as LaGrande, remembering her Pyrrhic victory over Roxanne, throws her tennis gear into the Mississippi from the Huey P. Long Bridge, marking an ironic populist victory for the Kingfish.

In other stories, Gilchrist creates a variety of characters who, like Roxanne, live on the fringes of Uptown society. An enterprising young pusher sets up shop under an Audubon Park oak tree in “The President of the Louisiana Live Oak Society.” Nora Jane Whittington robs an Irish Channel bar to finance a trip west in “The Famous Poll at Jody’s Bar.” Crystal Weiss, in a series of stories in Victory over Japan (1984) and Drunk with Love (1986), exemplifies a different kind of marginality: her unwillingness to adopt the roles of happy socialite, devoted wife, and young mother assigned to her by Uptown society drives her into drunken isolation.

Gilchrist offers a more fully developed version of Crystal in the central character of The Annunciation. Like Crystal, Amanda McCamey Ashe is an unhappily married woman whose Mississippi Delta origins conflict with the New Orleans Jewish roots of her husband. As a young girl growing up in the Delta, Amanda was fascinated by New Orleans (an experience shared by young women in the fiction of Eudora Welty and Elizabeth Spencer). She encounters the city firsthand at age fourteen when, pregnant by her older cousin, she is sent to a New Orleans home for unwed mothers to give birth. When she moves to New Orleans years later, after her wedding, she recalls her experience as a pregnant and frightened teenager. As her marriage deteriorates, her thoughts turn increasingly to her lost daughter, whom she imagines she sees throughout the city. In fact, her daughter is herself unhappily married to a New Orleans lawyer and lives a few blocks from Amanda. Although the women do not meet as mother and daughter in the novel, events at its end suggest that a meeting may be imminent. (A later collection, Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle, includes two stories that, according to the book jacket, “provide a new ending to” The Annuciation. This additional material clarifies some ambiguities and provides a happier conclusion to the earlier book.)

Amanda rejects New Orleans upper-class society as she gradually awakens to the shallowness of those around her. Gilchrist gives us the substance of Amanda’s critique through a flurry of cocktail party chatter that reveals a startling variety of oppressive attitudes, ranging from racism (“She told her brother she was pregnant and he said, good, he’d go on safari and bring her back a little Negro”) to the use of children as status symbols (“Did she get into Sacred Heart? Oh, that’s a shame”); the chatter, reported with an accurate ear for distinctive New Orleans syntax and intonation, builds to a climax that displays the inevitable results of such oppressions:

“Shot himself in front of his girlfriend’s house while the party was going on. Oh, yes, barely sixteen. They don’t know where he got the gun.”

“Hung himself in the closet at Covington.”

“Jumped off a bridge. Just like his daddy before him.”

“Oh, he’s disappeared into the Quarter. Won’t even take calls. Of course, everyone’s known for years. I heard it was a high school boy, an Italian.”


Moving through this world of shallow chatter and deep wounds, Amanda grows ever more conscious that she does not belong in this world of tea parties and suicidal youth. She finds a friend and ally in her housekeeper, Lavertis; their shared alienation from the community contributes to their common sense that they are “new people in the old museum of New Orleans.”

These experiences contribute to Amanda’s disaffection with her husband and her eventual flight to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she translates French poetry and takes a young lover. Although Amanda never returns to New Orleans in the course of the novel, she cannot escape the “cargo” of her unknown daughter. Here Gilchrist adopts a motif common in New Orleans fiction. The lost child, the heritage hidden behind locked gates within mysterious courtyards, the dark family secret: these reappear continually in New Orleans writing—in the stories of George W. Cable and Grace King, in Absalom, Absalom!, even in Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles. The heritage that Amanda passes unwittingly to her daughter is the oppression of Uptown society, an oppression that Amanda overcomes only through understanding herself and taking responsibility for her life; only by leaving New Orleans entirely can she hope to escape the city’s snare.

In the novels of Sheila Bosworth and Nancy Lemann, freedom is not so easily won. Although they perceive, with Gilchrist, fatal flaws in the ways Uptown society constitutes itself, each is too deeply rooted in that society to reject it without a struggle. Bosworth’s protagonist must reexamine painful childhood memories, and Lemann’s protagonist seems so entrenched that she may never escape. To these authors, the structures and manners of New Orleans society are not merely museum exhibits to be examined, analyzed, perhaps laughed at, but active forces that threaten their protagonists, who are both members of the society and observers of it. Their characters are latter-day Quentin Compsons, wanting to be free of the ruins of the old order yet knowing that it is only from those ruins that their freedom can come.

Clay-Lee Calvert, the protagonist of Bosworth’s Almost Innocent (1984) is, in many ways, a figure familiar to readers of southern literature. Her search is to understand the past (grounded for her in New Orleans) in order to understand herself. In the narrative of Clay-Lee’s search, Bosworth conducts her own analytical search, using the literary material of the grand New Orleans novel to subvert the genre itself. Her subversion takes several forms; the details of plot and character that we have come to expect of New Orleans novels are here in abundance, yet Bosworth sets them in a context that questions both their source and their effect. We see these motifs through the central consciousness of Clay-Lee, and through her we understand their impact. The book’s narrative circles through recollections and flashbacks, telling the story of Clay-Lee’s past as she herself comes to understand it. We learn the story of Clay-Lee’s parents and her early life as Clay-Lee herself hears it from her mother’s cousin Felicity Léger de la Corde, then Clay-Lee’s own memories move the story toward the present.

This nostalgic tone is set in the novel’s opening scene. As Clay-Lee and her father have dinner at Galatoire’s, Clay-Lee sees their waiter as a link with the past: “Vallon is old now, almost eighty. He used to give my father’s father red beans and rice in one of the upstairs rooms, generations ago.”8 Looking at her aging father’s youthful smile, Clay-Lee begins examining her past, trying to understand the forces that led to the death of her mother, Constance, and the continuing impact of those forces on her own life.

Many of the traditions Clay-Lee encounters during this self-examination are those of a Catholic upbringing: Lenten regulations, parochial school, catechism, and fasting before First Communion. The memories of these rituals are shaded by a mature understanding of the oppressions of childhood, as when Clay-Lee recalls, with wry humor, the inadvertent breaking of her First Communion fast: “It was the day I made my First Communion, and it was the day I consigned my immortal soul to hell” (92). For the young girl, the damnation of her soul is less important than the embarrassment of not going through a ceremony so meaningful to her mother. Clay-Lee inherits this fixation on the past from Constance, lost in the sorrows of her own childhood. When Clay-Lee’s great-uncle (called “Uncle Baby Brother” by all) agrees to pay her tuition to Sacred Heart Academy, the exclusive girls’ school that Constance attended, her mother urges upon Clay-Lee the importance of this event: “‘Just think,’ Constance was telling me, ‘Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat founded the Society of the Sacred Heart in France, in 1800, and here you are, almost two hundred years later, way over in Louisiana, about to share in all its history and tradition’” (163).

The rebellious young Clay-Lee fights against the strictures of this history and tradition. When her aunt urges her to read Lives of the Saints for Little People, she turns instead to Louisiana Hayride, a history of Huey Long’s tumultuous career; when her aunt warns her to pray to “the saints instead of making fun of them,” she retorts, “Maybe I’ll pray to Huey Long instead” (195). We chuckle at this youthful rebellion, but underlying Bosworth’s humor is a serious point: the mature Clay-Lee must realize how these traditions imposed themselves on her developing sense of self.

And yet the novel’s grounding in New Orleans does not derive solely from its repetition of the old chestnuts of the New Orleans literary tradition; Bosworth balances the sentimental perspective of the past with the more realistic appraisal of the present. Bosworth’s clearest use of this dual perspective comes through her use of Mardi Gras, always a prominent motif of the grand New Orleans novel. As the central event of New Orleans social life, Carnival often becomes, as here, a prime setting for serendipitous meetings.

The dramatic manner in which Clay-Lee describes her parents’ first meeting suggests how completely her mother’s identity was bound to the grand artificiality of New Orleans high society: “She was Constance Blaise Alexander, Queen of Comus, the most magnificent of the Carnival balls, on the night they fell in love” (17). Their masked meeting recalls those that begin George W. Cable’s Grandissimes and Frances Parkinson Keyes’s Crescent Carnival and is marked by the equally venerable literary tradition of flaunting custom: “As Constance leaned forward to greet her consort, Rand Calvert, far below, defied tradition by throwing aside his mask to see her face more clearly” (17). The special connection of this family with Mardi Gras goes back even to Constance’s birth on Twelfth Night, the traditional beginning of the Carnival season. With the obstetrician still in his satin ball costume, Constance’s mother vows to “dress her daughter in only blue or white till she was five years old, as a sign of thanksgiving to the Mother of God for the child’s existence” (27).

Yet this romantic view of Carnival is sharply undercut when Constance learns, after her father’s sudden death, that he lost most of his money gambling and died penniless because he “borrowed against everything he still owned for the pleasure of seeing you, Mrs. Calvert, as the beautiful debutante and Carnival Queen that you were” (66). We are to see, with Clay-Lee, the absurdity of this gesture, yet Clay-Lee also responds to its grandeur.

As the narrative moves into Clay-Lee’s own memories, she recalls a Carnival season that serves as a crucial turning point for the plot. Her recollections of Felicity and her husband Airey’s annual Mardi Gras open house are cast as a romantic childhood idyll, yet it sets into motion events that will haunt Clay-Lee well into her adult life. In describing the party, Bosworth captures a certain self-consciously gracious New Orleans social style: “Felicity had not forgotten the light eaters and pregnant ladies, either (and it seemed to me then there were always dozens of the latter, in this city of Catholic wealth and dynasty): waiters circulated with trays of watercress or Virginia ham finger sandwiches, offered iced tea to the mothers-to-be, and poured champagne for their husbands” (125). This fragility cannot prevail against the passage of time: “I don’t like the parades any more,” recalls Constance; “I used to like them when I lived in the Garden District” (123). Despite the care with which plans have been laid, the party turns out disastrously when Clay-Lee’s great-uncle shows up unexpectedly with a surprise guest: “Uncle Baby had brought an octoroon to the de la Cordes’ Open House” (131). Damaging as this scene is to the delicate sensibilities of the guests, Uncle Baby Brother’s appearance forebodes more lasting damage: his infatuation with Constance will lead to the breakup of the Calverts’ marriage and to Constance’s death.

The novel’s critical view of New Orleans traditions is manifested most clearly in Felicity’s narration of the early portion of Constance’s story to Clay-Lee. Bosworth draws a sharp contrast between the dying woman and the legendary exploits of her youth: “Tales of her bewitching magnetism, her pitiless heart, ran rife among a certain segment of New Orleans’ population. Felicity Léger had trifled with the affections of a brilliant Jewish medical student, wrecked his studies, and robbed him of his future; she had worn underpants fashioned from a Rebel flag to a childhood friend’s coming-out party, lifted her skirt, and shown them to the orchestra leader, whose band then burst into the most rousing rendition of ‘I Wish I Was in Dixie’ ever heard at the Southern Yacht Club” (23). By now Felicity has become the picturesque aging relative, recounting the family history to the adoring Clay-Lee. Bosworth refuses, however, to let Felicity slip fully into a nostalgic haze; into a sensuous account of childhood memories she interjects a jarring reminder of Felicity’s present decay:

All through the rooms were the blending, alternating aromas of sachet-scented bed linens, hand-embroidered by French nuns at a convent in Vermilion Parish; of magnolias and camellias, floating in silver bowls in every room, each spring and summer; of pine logs burning in the wide fireplaces in winter; of freshly baked biscuits and of French-drip coffee in the mornings, gumbos and baked hams and honey-basted plantains at dinnertime. …

Felicity paused for a minute, to swallow what looked like a Percodan, then went on.


A gashed arm provides the immediate occasion for the Percodan, yet her action suggests that the past itself is a dangerous narcotic, its soothing forces offering both solace and addiction. In her perseverance and her love for Clay-Lee, Felicity recalls other stoic New Orleans ladies, particularly Binx Bolling’s aunt, Emily Cutrer, in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Her desire to pass on something of value to future generations is especially clear in her bequest to Clay-Lee of a collection of books, one a leather-bound edition of Ovid with a letter in it: “‘Dear Clay-Lee,’ the letter read, ‘go on without me, from where we stopped our last Friday night together. If you start at the place where you recall things firsthand—that would be your first years at the house on Camp Street—you will look well and fairly at what you know of your mother’s life and your own, and eventually you will see cause and effect. Felicity.’” (73). Added to this was a quote from Ovid: “Parsque meminisse doloris, she had written; it is part of grief to remember” (73). Like Binx, Clay-Lee must decide how to interpret these hints from the past and how to integrate them with the knowledge she has gained on her own. Only then can she understand who is responsible for the events of her childhood.

The question of responsibility is posed most clearly by the figure of Rand, Clay-Lee’s father, the carefree artist and defier of tradition who, in the opening scene that introduces the book’s flashbacks, stumbles drunkenly through dinner at Galatoire’s. Rand is the central exhibit before whom Clay-Lee stands, aware that she must understand its meaning for her life before she can move on.

A Times-Picayune writer has called Rand “an uptown New Orleans archetype,” and reported Bosworth’s experience with Rand’s avatars: “‘I know so many men like that. … In fact, three different men have said to me, “Oh, I’m Rand Calvert.” And I say “Oh well, yes.” … I wonder if any other city has them. … I’m talking about bright, sophisticated, charming men who have that fatal lethargy. You have a feeling they wouldn’t be as charming if they had that drive, that Toledo, Ohio, drive. The charm comes at a price.’”9

How to interpret the life of Rand Calvert is a critical question for Bosworth and for her protagonist, just as how to interpret the glamorous fates of men like Rand is a central dilemma in understanding New Orleans and its fiction. To see their doom as a noble expression of the human condition is to risk both sentimentality and the perpetuation of a dangerous myth. To deny any mythic quality is to accept the hard truth of a pathetic and wasted life.

The interpretation of Clay-Lee’s story poses another problem, especially for a study of Bosworth in the context of Louisiana women writers, and this problem becomes even more thorny with Lemann’s Lives of the Saints. Although Bosworth and Lemann trace a woman’s search for the meaningful pattern of her life, their protagonists do not, in the end, come to the self-reliant rejection of masculine definitions that Gilchrist’s Amanda achieves, and that a feminist viewpoint might lead us to expect and desire. Clay-Lee and, to an even greater extent, Lemann’s Louise are obsessed with the doom that defines the lives of the men they love.

Although we may question, and even condemn, the protagonists’ concern with taking care of helpless men, the two women make little progress, if any, in escaping this “codependency” in either novel. The narratives of both books circle back again and again to the cultural expectations that circumscribe the lives of the glamorous, doomed men the women love. Clay-Lee and Louise understand the artificiality of this cultural construct, but they are all but powerless to change it. Their only resource is narrative itself; by pushing the tale to its limits, they can demonstrate its essential fictionality. We as readers must wrestle with the same question: are the glittering young men who populate fictional Uptown society pale southern imitations of Jay Gatsby, or are they, as Nancy Lemann’s narrator might put it, The Real Thing?

This question lies at the heart of Lemann’s Lives of the Saints (1985), a book characterized by manic irony from the title onward. Lemann’s rejection of the Uptown tradition is more radical than that of either Gilchrist or Bosworth. Although Lemann’s narrator, Louise, like Clay-Lee, is a product of New Orleans society, she is unable to reach the freedom from the past that Clay-Lee finally attains. Louise is driven both to “record the passing parade,” as she says, and to turn a withering stare on the pretensions of these Doomed Young Men, thereby freeing them (not the least of her ironic strategies is the capitalization of clichéd concepts that have taken on a life and power of their own). The edges of Louise’s picture are beginning to fray, the calm hush of Clay-Lee’s reverence replaced by disorder and the refusal to consider such accommodation.

The “saints” of her title are the Collier brothers, Saint Claude Collier (called “Claude”) and his younger brother Saint Louis Collier (called “Saint”). Their father, Saint Louis Collier, a former judge and present eccentric, embodies in his dress the fading of a glamorous past: he “always wore seersucker suits that he had had for about fifty years and which were always wrinkled and faded to a kind of yellow color.”10 In describing a summer evening in the Quarter, Lemann makes explicit the connection between fashion and nostalgia: “It was Latin American Night in the Quarter, in Jackson Square, starting at eight o’clock. The time is gone when we were ‘the gateway to the Americas’ and ships left our harbor daily for Havana with all the men wearing white suits. But all the men still wear white suits in New Orleans, on certain summer days” (56). Even the men’s white suits here offer a glimpse of nostalgia, recalling as they do days before air conditioning, when crisp white suits bespoke a certain elegance.

Lemann’s lack of sympathy for society’s pretensions is seen most clearly in her brief portrait of Judge Collier’s wife, who—like Joseph Frowenfeld in Cable’s Grandissimes or Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire—has had to become acclimated to the city and adapt her exterior view of New Orleans to an understanding of what life there is really like: “She was a Yankee girl Mr. Collier had brought down from Harvard many years ago, and she never got over the shock of New Orleans. As a newlywed, she wanted to wear baggy shirts and work with the professors in her department at Tulane, but somehow this was too unlike her generation, and also, there were always garden parties and witty intrigues and carnival balls. Mrs. Collier had to learn to cope with silver, with crystal, with entertaining, and with other things previously foreign to her” (34). She has made the adjustments that Amanda, in The Annunciation, refuses to make, and as a result has become a bitter, pessimistic woman, unable to intervene in her family’s inevitable slide toward doom.

Her husband, the Judge, has made his own adjustments. His three passions—gardening, grand opera, and ancient Greek poetry—mark his detachment from the crazed world around him. Although this response is a version of Felicity’s admirable stoic detachment, its effects on his sons, who have inherited his sense of doom, are severe. Despite Claude’s early promise, he has taken to “hanging around with wino lunatics and racetrack habitués and other weird types of wrecks” (23). His much younger brother, Saint, addicted to Cokes and fatally accident prone, falls to his death from a balcony, a tragedy that leads to his father’s nervous breakdown and Claude’s further decline.

The classic motifs of New Orleans writing all appear in the novel, but unlike the details in Bosworth’s novel, they remain isolated and do not contribute directly to a larger narrative structure. Lemann manifests a curious disinterest in plot; again and again the focus of the narrative shifts from the story to the milieu. One of the narrator’s recurring concerns is the weather: “It was a night in the spring, though in New Orleans you can hardly tell the season as it’s so often hot. A sweltering night in October can be just the same as a sweltering night in April, for in New Orleans the seasons have only subtle differences, unlike in the North. It was balmy old New Orleans weather in the tropic spring, and everything was green and overgrown” (5).

Again and again Louise tries to define what is distinctive about New Orleans, never finding an answer that satisfies her. Each motif is linked to another in a book-length chain of free association that fails to reveal any larger pattern. The author leads us to the question of what might define New Orleans, yet never settles on an answer that satisfies her. At times an overly close attachment to the past seems to explain the distinctive texture of life in New Orleans: “We got to a bar along the Mississippi coast in one of the small towns. It was a country bar, right on the Gulf, and the entire clientele looked like it had just stepped out of law school, with horn-rimmed glasses predominant. The band was playing old songs from the 1960s era in which New Orleans and environs remain, even though it is twenty years later. They’re just always playing old songs where I live” (137).

New Orleans’ obsession with the past has been noted ever since the first nineteenth-century travel writers visited the city, but in this novel the usual explanations for such a sense of the past (the city’s European heritage or its military defeat) are absent, and the focus instead is on the recent past. For Lemann’s characters, living in the past seems largely a means of avoiding the present, ultimately an unsatisfactory means.

Lemann is concerned as well with the potent cultural images of New Orleans—the book at times seems more concerned with these images than with the city itself, becoming a catalog of literary New Orleans. Beth Cooley effectively summarizes the literary landscape of the novel this way: “There is a strange blend of romantic recklessness reminiscent of Mitchell’s antebellum Georgia and an almost predetermined destruction reminiscent of Faulkner’s antebellum Mississippi. Add to this the nightmarish but voluptuous quality of A Streetcar Named Desire and then color it with the ironic humor of Eudora Welty or Walker Percy and you begin to describe the mood of Lemann’s New Orleans.”11 Lemann acknowledges the power of these images even as she attempts to rob them of their efficacy. Her detailed descriptions offer images that are sensuous and seemingly full of meaning, yet rather than linking these images to create a larger thematic pattern, she abruptly shifts our attention to another scene, only to return, a few pages later, to the original image from another perspective. The resulting multifaceted picture speaks to the fragmentation of Louise’s own consciousness, and her deeply divided response to the city.

Lemann’s fragmentary treatment of Mardi Gras effectively points to differences between Bosworth’s approach and hers. In a mood that recalls Faulkner’s Pylon, New Orleans during the Carnival season becomes a wasteland:

The ticket takers were lying around on the stairs looking out at the street with the sallow faces of saints, black men wearing gold theater uniforms, sprawled on the stairs looking out to Canal Street as though it were some slow jazz party.

Carnival, in fact, was pending.


The objective, slightly ominous tone of “pending,” more suggestive of a legal judgment than a festival, is a far cry from the vibrancy of earlier literary descriptions of Carnival.

The fragile manners of Felicity’s open house in Bosworth’s Almost Innocent have shattered into the jagged fragments of obsolete fantasies. Consider Louise’s artist friend Henry: “In his rooms, Henry hung ominous paintings of Mardi Gras balls, where the queens and debutantes had insanely wide smiles and skeletal frames, holding their scepters rigid in the air. Bland men in tuxedos stood grouped around them, smiling weakly. This was Henry’s plea for satire” (65–66). Yet after Lemann holds the old sham-fantasy up to ridicule, she reclaims it in a striking, unexpected image:

The weather had turned fine. Dark fell. I looked into the glittering night. Suddenly, a parade came out of nowhere and passed through the unsuspecting street, heralded by African drumbeats in the distance vaguely, then the approach of jazz, the smell of sweet olive, ambrosia, the sense of impending spectacle. Then it passed in its fleeting beauty, this glittering dirge, and, as suddenly as it came, I was left, rather stunned, in its wake.

It is this passing parade which I chronicle.


Only by shattering the old narratives can she regain the experience from the “fragments … shored against [her] ruin,” in T. S. Eliot’s words. And yet, to follow Eliot further, Louise has these experiences of beauty but misses their meaning; she is unable to find the perspective that will make the images cohere.

The manic irony that characterizes Louise’s narrative voice is the instrument by which Lemann maintains a distance from the actions she describes. Her aim is to capture the texture of New Orleans life rather than to develop a traditional plot. The novel is divided not into chapters, but into 201 scenes, which range in length from a few lines to a few pages. This formlessness signals a refusal to map out a plot, and hence a doom, for her characters. Given the narrative forms available, Claude’s only choices are suicide or alcoholism. Rather than make this choice, Lemann stops the novel. At its end Claude, apparently implicated in a racing scandal, simply leaves: “He stood in his dark suit, blameless. Then he turned down Bourbon directly into that gaudy crowd of humanity, his polite, unobtrusive figure casting among it something of dignity. With his hands in his pockets and his collar turned up against the rain, my beloved Claude receded—and disappeared for years.” (144). Lemann leaves us, and Louise, to wrestle with the implications of this mysterious departure.

The hagiography in which the narrator’s affections for Claude are masked is heavily ironic; Lemann’s is not an orthodox religious imagination. The novel’s title is, of course, a pun, a play on traditional religious sensibility. Although its male members are named after saints, the Collier family practices no apparent religion. (Or perhaps they were named after streets—they may as well have been.) When Judge Collier, after Saint’s death, begins reading the Lives of the Saints, Louise takes it as further evidence of his impending breakdown. Lemann refuses to let her Lives become such a martyrology, seemingly the only narrative pattern available. By tracing the surfaces of her characters’ lives, rather than describing their ultimate shape, Louise occupies a netherland between the doomed narrative of Clay-Lee Calvert and the flippant irony of Anna Hand; her fragmented narrative signifies a refusal to accept either alternative, as well as a refusal to reject either completely. Her mixture of affection and hate for the city with disgust and love for its inhabitants leads to her narrative of fragmentation and disillusion.

The accumulated tradition of New Orleans literature weighs heavily in the fiction of Gilchrist, Bosworth, and Lemann. Like the humidity of an August afternoon in the French Quarter, remembered people, places, and actions encourage a lassitude and timidity of thought. Why imagine new stories, why invent new destinies, when the old ones are so full of life? Grace King’s observation in the passage serving as an epigraph to this essay underlines the point: “Romances seem to be furnished real and gratis, in order to save, in a languor-breeding climate, the ennui of reading and writing books.”12 These furnished romances are not easily ignored.

Gilchrist, Bosworth, and Lemann, each in her own way, have recognized the fatal lethargy of such a course, have understood that the old stories maintain their vitality only by ensnaring new victims and perpetuating their curse. Each writer pits her protagonist against this life-destroying fiction: Amanda and Clay-Lee force the narratives of their lives into new channels; Louise, unable to conceive such a way out, removes herself from the narrative’s inexorable move toward doom. For her, the streetcar still rattles through the city streets, giving form to her nightmarish visions. All three authors transform the accumulated popular vision of New Orleans into narrative forms that offer new perspectives on the city’s social and literary traditions.


  1. Flannery O’Connor, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York, 1961), 41.

  2. J. Randal Woodland, “‘In that city foreign and paradoxical’: The Idea of New Orleans in the Southern Literary Imagination” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1987), 134–36.

  3. Conversation with W. Kenneth Holditch, August, 1986.

  4. Ellen Gilchrist, The Annunciation (Boston, 1983), 81, hereinafter cited parenthetically by page number in the text.

  5. Ellen Gilchrist, Victory over Japan (Boston, 1984), 83.

  6. Ellen Gilchrist, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (Fayetteville, 1981), 65, 62.

  7. Ibid., 60–61.

  8. Sheila Bosworth, Almost Innocent (New York, 1984), 13, hereinafter cited parenthetically by page number in the text.

  9. New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 20, 1985, “Dixie” section, 4.

  10. Nancy Lemann, Lives of the Saints (New York, 1985), 15, hereinafter cited parenthetically by page number in the text.

  11. Beth Cooley, “White Summer Suits,” Spectator (Raleigh, N.C.), September 26, 1985, p. 24.

  12. Grace King, Balcony Stories (1893; rpr. Ridgewood, N.J., 1968), 3.

Margaret D. Bauer (essay date Fall 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5522

SOURCE: “The Evolution of Caddy: An Intertextual Reading of The Sound and the Fury and Ellen Gilchrist's The Annunciation,” in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 40-51.

[In the following essay, Bauer asserts that the fate of Amanda McCamey in Gilchrist's The Annunciation exhibits a more optimistic view of the future of the Southerner than the fate of Caddy Compson in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.]

Certain parallels between the works of Ellen Gilchrist and William Faulkner might suggest to the reader that the South has not changed very much during the last century, though writers apparently continue to see the need for change. A comparison of The Sound and the Fury with Gilchrist’s The Annunciation reveals that the South is still filled with individuals who have a false and often destructive sense of themselves. The bitter irony is that those who suffer the consequences are the victims of this hypocrisy rather than its supporters, and two such victims are Caddy Compson and Amanda McCamey, the central characters of these two novels. Both are strong women who choose to live according to their own value systems rather than their families’ hypocritical codes of honor and morality.

The love and courage of Faulkner’s Caddy are ultimately broken down by her family, leaving her with a destructive self image, which in turn provides the reader with a sense of her ultimate doom. For much of her life, Gilchrist’s Amanda McCamey also responds self-destructively to her family’s treatment, but she eventually saves herself by recognizing and recollecting her early strengths. Armed with a restored ability to love, she takes what Caddy was first denied and then refused—a second chance. The reader who examines the parallels between these two lives and notes the differences in their fates will realize that the fortitude of people like Amanda, who refuse to break under the pressure of discrimination and hypocrisy, is slowly helping to moderate the traditionally rigid codes of the South.

Ironically, there are two completely opposite ways to view one of the parallels between these two works. One can either see a similarity between Amanda and Guy’s incestuous relationship and that of Caddy and Quentin (although the latter is never physically consummated), or one can argue, equally soundly, from the actions of other characters in both novels that there is no incest in either relationship. Regardless of which view the reader takes, what remains clear is the absence of parental guidance and the consequences of this void. The parents’ refusal in both novels to acknowledge such a possibility as incest or their blindness to it reflects their negligence as well as their fear of scandal.

The incest in The Annunciation is a physically irrefutable fact: Amanda and Guy are first cousins (raised, in fact, more like brother and sister—Guy even calls Amanda “Sissy”), and they are lovers.1 This latter fact cannot be denied with any fanciful reading of the text, since Amanda conceives and bears a child as a result of her sexual relations with Guy. The question of incest between Caddy and Quentin, however, has been debated since the novel’s publication. In support of the presence of incest, many critics give explanations similar to that of Lee Clinton Jenkins, who writes, “Good Puritan that Quentin is, he feels the prohibition and allure of the forbidden act so strongly that the admission [to his father] of it as a possibility constitutes its enactment” (136).

Other critics, however, assert that Quentin either avoids the subject with Caddy (since he tells his father that he did not, for fear that she would accept) or that he was ultimately unable to go through with it (even if his offering of a double suicide is interpreted as a thinly disguised sexual proposition). But John T. Irwin’s interpretation of this episode at the branch disclaims such reasoning against incest:

When Quentin puts his knife to his sister’s throat, he is placing his knife at the throat of someone who is an image of himself, thereby evoking the threat of castration—the traditional punishment for incest. The brother seducer with the phallic knife at his sister’s throat is as well the brother avenger with the castrating knife at the brother seducer’s throat—the father with the castrating knife at the son’s penis.


This view of Quentin acting as Caddy’s father is particularly interesting since readers more often comment on the motherliness of Caddy towards her brothers. Once the suggestion is made, however, one should note the significant difference between these two “parents.” Acting as a father, since Mr. Compson will not do so, Quentin attempts to punish himself, but Caddy’s motherly actions, which are intended to compensate for Mrs. Compson’s neglect, involve the nurturing and loving of Benjy. Here one finds still another means of support for the presence of incest. As Constance Hill Hall notes in the introduction to Incest in Faulkner: A Metaphor for the Fall, “in cases of sibling incest, the brother and sister are likely to be … the children of weak and neglectful parents who fail to provide a strong and positive influence” (4).2

In still further support of the incest theory, one can say that Quentin becomes more of a father to Caddy’s child than whoever the natural father may be. First of all, he feels responsible for Caddy’s predicament. As John Arthos explains, Quentin

is extremely fond of [Caddy], and her situation thrusts upon him a burden of responsibility he accepts. … He comes to believe that his own love has failed her, and in something like adolescent self-torment he thinks his guilt is equivalent to the betrayal itself. He extends his torment to the point where it is as if he himself had betrayed her through incest.


In addition, Caddy establishes Quentin as the father according to Lawrence Thompson, when she names the child after him.3 Thompson concludes from this naming that although “in the literal sense, Quentin did not father her child, … in some figurative sense he did” (43). In the same figurative sense, then, he also committed incest.

On the other hand entirely, the fact remains that Caddy and Quentin do not actually have sexual intercourse with each other and thus do not commit incest. It could be argued that Quentin does not even want to. Quentin’s reasons for contemplating and admitting to incest have little if anything to do with desire for his sister’s body. Faulkner’s description of Quentin in the appendix reveals the author’s support of this notion:

Who loved not his sister’s body but some concept of Compson honor precariously and … temporarily supported by the minute fragile membrane of her maidenhead. Who loved not the idea of the incest which he could not commit, but some presbyterian concept of its eternal punishment.


Furthermore, one can view any desires on Quentin’s part as more narcissistic than incestuous. Quentin sees Caddy as his other half.4 She has many of the positive qualities he lacks: for example, she is more courageous than Quentin, a fact established in their childhood when she risks punishment by climbing the tree in order to gain knowledge (ironically, knowledge of death—ironic, since, as is also noted in Faulkner’s appendix, Quentin “loved death above all” (411), and yet at that point his cowardice keeps him from knowing it). Conversely, he sees a lack in her too, of certain qualities important to him, namely obedience to certain codes of behavior. Also, he is the oldest child, but she is the chosen substitute for their weak parents because of her ability to provide “love, compassion, pity, and sacrifice” (35), all of which are usual offerings from parent to child. Thus, union of the two in Quentin’s eyes is necessary; without it they are each incomplete and thus weak.5 As future head of his family, Quentin will need Caddy’s strength and authority; he believes if their family line is to survive in its present state, Caddy must adopt his codes of morality.

In relation to this idea, Quentin’s reasons for contemplating a sexual relationship with Caddy may go back to some primitive reasons for incest: first, “to stabilize and unify the dynasty by limiting the peripheries of a clan”, second, “a privilege that … was reserved for royalty”, and third, an act “necessary to the survival of a race” (Hall 6).6 Quentin is concerned with the survival of his family, a family which he views as “royal” in the sense that they were the descendants of the aristocracy of the Old South. This elevated perception of his family allows him to contemplate incest in spite of his Puritan nature. In this light, he would view the notion of Caddy committing incest with him as more acceptable than her philandering behavior with “unsuitable” partners which could result in “unsuitable” descendants.

One can repudiate the existence of incest in Gilchrist’s novel on similar grounds—despite the child Barrett Clare, whom the reader knows to be the indisputable offspring of first cousins Amanda and Guy. Whether or not sexual intercourse took place is again not really the issue. Rather, as in the other novel, the question is, was it incest? From Amanda’s perception, the answer is no. First of all, the narrator notes early in the novel that when Amanda was a child “no one minded when they found her in [Guy’s] bed” (6); and later, “everyone on Esperanza watched it [the growing love between them] but only the black people knew what they were watching. Only the black people knew what it meant” (12). One can deduce, too, from the position of blacks on a Southern plantation, that these servants would not have spoken up about their understanding of this developing “situation.” Given the above narrative comments, one can also say that, to Amanda, a sexual relationship with Guy was a natural development, and thus not incest—incest is a taboo and no one had intimated to her any such prohibitions regarding her unconcealed feelings for Guy. To the contrary—they had encouraged it by their silence. Moreover, when Amanda does deliver her baby, it is immediately taken from her and she is told by a nun, “Now you can be a girl again” and “put it out of your mind” (20). In addition, the matriarch of the family, her grandmother, welcomes her back into the fold—if not into their home—as if nothing happened.7 And the ugly word “incest” is never mentioned. Both her religion and her family, then, choose to deny Amanda’s actions. And the reader recognizes that Amanda did not knowingly commit a sin.

In the relationships between both Amanda and Guy and Caddy and Quentin, the female is the stronger member. In The Sound and the Fury, this notion is illustrated in the tree episode. In The Annunciation, Amanda finds Guy cleaning some birds killed on a hunting trip: “One of the birds was so warm Guy thought it was still alive. His thumb hit a tendon and it moved in his hands. He leaned over and vomited. … Amanda stood beside a rocker watching him” (6). She is not sickened by the dead birds, only concerned for Guy.

Regardless of his weaknesses, Amanda adores Guy. Since the novel is written for the most part in limited omniscience, from Amanda’s point of view, one can credit her with the description of “Guy, who could do anything … who was afraid of nothing in the world” (9), and the belief that “there was nothing to fear when Guy was there” (11). Similarly, despite her realization of Quentin’s shortcomings, Caddy loves her older brother. Many of her own daring actions, like taking off her dress in front of her brothers or climbing the forbidden tree, are attempts to get Quentin’s attention and/or to impress him. As soon as Quentin says, “I bet you won’t” (20), little sister Caddy feels compelled to go through with her brave declarations or lose face in front of her big brother.

As I have suggested, the confusion of these four adolescents regarding the morality or immorality of their desires is particularly disturbing because of the failure of their parents to counsel them on the matter. The notorious image of the hypochondriac Mrs. Compson doing little else besides whining about being punished by God for her family’s transgressions is evidence of this neglect, as is Mrs. McCamey’s constant mourning for her deceased husband, which leaves little time to see to her daughter’s emotional needs. The attitudes Caddy and Amanda consequently have towards the idea of motherhood, although in direct contrast to each other, are both typical reactions of motherless children compensating for their loss. By attending to Benjy’s emotional needs, Caddy fills the gap she feels from her mother’s inattentiveness to her own emotions.8 Amanda, on the other hand, responds to her mother’s rejection with comparable rejection, as is evident in her discomfort with some baby rabbits: “Their little sucking noises bothered her, as though they might get on her and stick to her skin” (5). This reaction clearly reveals a fear of the attachment associated with motherhood.

For a while, with the help of these individual methods of compensation and the care they receive from the rest of their families, neither girl suffers excessively from being essentially motherless. However, the latter indemnity, the love of other members of their families, particularly Quentin and Guy, eventually fails them, and when this happens the former indemnity, their own personal responses to the idea of motherhood, causes certain consequences; hence, the betrayal from outside causes a betrayal from within the self. That both girls’ reactions to motherlessness lead them toward doom, despite the noted disparity between their reactions, is largely the responsibility of Quentin and Guy, who remain undeviating in their similarity.

Regarding Caddy, Baum notes:

Ironically enough, those qualities in her character that are admirable are the ones which lead to her fall: her complete selflessness, which leads her to be indifferent to her virginity and to what happens to her; her willingness to put the other person’s interests first; and her great desire to communicate love.


Such a desire leads Caddy to sexual activity, but once she becomes sexually active, Quentin betrays her love as he breaks down her strong self-image in his attempts to make her see the immorality of her actions. Paradoxically, he is acting from his religious convictions. As Amos Wilder explains it, Quentin believes in a “truncated Christian conception of guilt and retribution, severed from all ideas of grace” (125). This Puritanical perception of God is manifested in Quentin’s egotistical view of his family and prejudice against particular outsiders, like Dalton Ames, which demonstrates an acceptance of the Calvinistic concept of the elect and the reprobate. His attempts to force his convictions on Caddy, however, backfire. Once she looks at her sexuality through his eyes, she perceives it as sinful, rather than as a means of loving, and she accepts her damnation and behaves accordingly. The result is pregnancy with no knowledge of the father’s identity.9

Initially, Caddy’s family takes her away to hide her condition. To their seeming good fortune, they even find a husband to “legitimize” Caddy and the child she carries. But the Compson’s God is of the Old Testament, too.10 When Caddy’s husband perceives his wife’s condition and sends her home, they acknowledge her sin and punish her in the Puritan tradition: they ban her from her home. This rejection reinforces Caddy’s acceptance of Quentin’s belief in her sinful nature and she loses confidence in her capacity to be a good mother to her child. She believes, rather, that she would be a harmful influence upon her daughter and therefore allows her family to first take and then keep her child from her, despite her justified misgivings about their treatment of the innocent baby as a symbol of its mother’s sin, not to mention her first-hand knowledge of their destructiveness. According to Lawrence Bowling, this abandonment of her child is what really dooms Caddy.

She is “damned,” not because she committed fornication and bore an illegitimate child but because, living in a state of perpetual sin, she has neither desire nor hope for redemption; but, most of all, she is damned because, instead of accepting her duty to her child and being the best mother she could, she abandoned the child to the same household which had been her own ruin.


Consequently, the Compson family is doomed as well. “Had Caddy been allowed to return home to care for Quentin and Benjy and thus to fulfill the destiny of her nature, the Compson history might have been different. Instead, the tragedy of Caddy’s life is repeated by her child” (Page 66). Both Caddy and her daughter are lost to the Compsons, and since the girl Quentin is the only progeny of this generation of Compsons, this loss means the end of the family line as far as they will ever know.

Paralleling all of these circumstances in The Sound and the Fury, as long as Amanda has Guy’s attention and affection and hands-on care from the people at Esperanza Plantation, the negative implications of her fear of attachment are not so apparent, for hers is not an all-encompassing attitude against bonding. She allows herself to love Guy; it is only motherly love she protects herself against. Yet, fearing rejection from Guy, too, before he leaves for college, Amanda gives herself to him completely in order to seal their bond forever. Like Caddy, she uses sex as a means of getting the love she craves but which had been denied her in the past. Like Quentin, unfortunately, Guy ultimately fails her. He silently allows his family to send her away to have his baby, and he does not contact her at the home for unwed mothers or even after the baby is born. Rather, again like Quentin, Guy goes on with his life at college. When he does come to see her at school (at her request), he blames her pregnancy on the sinfulness of their actions: “It happened because we did things we weren’t supposed to do” (32). Clearly, Guy’s God, like Quentin’s, is the punishing God of the Old Testament.11 Guy needs a God who will punish him, since his family fails to do so. He needs to pay for his sin to purge his guilt. When he tells Amanda, “I ask God all the time to forgive us” (32), he forces her to acknowledge their guilt rather than recall their love. Amanda refuses (verbally at least) to do any such thing; rather, she lashes out blasphemously, knowing that her words will terrify her God-fearing cousin: “There isn’t any God. … Only idiots believe in God. If there was a God I’d hate his guts” (32).

Upon learning of her pregnancy Amanda’s family had sent her away to have the baby. Once she had atoned for this sin—by giving up her child to make “a barren woman happy” (20)—she was absolved, according to the Catholic faith of the home for unwed mothers where she spent her pregnancy. Her family can conveniently forget her shame now, so that “she will have her chance” (21), as her grandmother selfishly desires, since Amanda is necessary to the continuation of their family line.12 However, they do not see the effects of their actions on Amanda. Forgetting or denying is not so easy for her. Since she is not given any chances to deal with her actions, she continues to be haunted by the memory of her baby; for much of her life, she refuses to allow herself to want another child or to find and make amends with her first one. Furthermore, from the time that the baby was born, “the scar was there, and debilitating cramps when she menstruated” (37), and a doctor reports that “she’ll probably never conceive again” (41) because of her early pregnancy (although he, too, contributes to the fictions fed to Amanda at this time by not telling her so). Consequently, when she finally allows herself to think of having another baby, she and her husband Malcolm are repeatedly disappointed when they mistake her irregular menstrual cycle for pregnancy. Amanda finally gives up again, announcing to her husband that she refuses to suffer any more such disappointments, so plans to “get an IUD to regulate [her] periods,” which will, of course, also prevent conception. Thus, her family’s cover-up actually almost insures its sterility and ultimate extinction—almost in this case, since Amanda eventually regroups her strength, rejects the negative self-image she has been fostering, and decides to keep the baby she conceives when she is forty-four.

Another parallel between these two Southern novels involves further division among the critics of The Sound and the Fury. Since its four sections correspond to the four days of the Easter weekend, some critics inevitably speculate on which character is the novel’s Christ figure. Although many see Benjy as the logical choice, given his age and his suffering, John Edward Hardy names Caddy’s daughter Quentin instead.13 Lyall Powers calls Quentin “a second chance for the Compson family” (35), but in keeping with the myth of the crucifixion, the Compsons are not responsive to the possibility of making up for their actions towards Caddy. On the contrary, the girl Quentin is, in John Edward Hardy’s words, “betrayed … to her doom of ostracism and exile, … [and] denied the love of her people” (152). Finally, flight is, in a sense, a “resurrection” from the corrupt microcosm of the Compson home. However, as John Earl Bassett notes, although her “flight from the tomb of her house is a parodic Easter resurrection,” she “does not rise; she descends down a tree” (17). So Quentin is somewhat lacking as a Christ figure, since no glimpse is given of her new life to provide assurance that she has gone on to a better world. Without such knowledge, Caddy is never released from her guilt. She does not gain from her daughter a sense of her own potential for salvation; rather, she continues to believe in her impending damnation.

Gilchrist’s novel uses Christian mythology, too, as indicated first of all by its title. Given the circumstances of his birth, this novel’s Christ appears to be Amanda’s second child.14 However, it is the abandoned first child, her daughter, who has the potential of releasing her mother from guilt. This child, like Quentin, becomes a more significant Christ figure, especially given the family’s complete disregard of the paternity of Amanda’s daughter, Barrett Clare, the suffering this child endures throughout her life, and the fact that Amanda does not find peace until she decides to acknowledge her. Barrett Clare, then, is Amanda’s means of salvation. Furthermore, when Guy reappears in Amanda’s life, the nature of her attraction to him is revealed, within which one can find support for their child as the novel’s Christ figure.

He was the same old Guy, direct, impenetrable, true. How could [she] have been expected to love an ordinary man … after loving a man like this? … Now, because she had touched him, she came within the circle of his power, forgetting as she always did when she came near him where she began or he began.

(287, emphasis added)

In this passage, not only is Guy described in divine terms, but also the reader is reminded of Amanda’s narcissism (again, a major motivation for incest). Her earlier admission of Guy into the realm of her protected self can now be viewed not as an ability to bond with another human being, as was suggested previously, but rather as a further rejection of others. To her he is not a separate entity but part of her own self. Hence, taking him as a mate reinforces her aversion to relationships with other human beings. She even tells Guy during this reunion, “I love you as I have always loved you. Like I was loving my own self” (289). If they are two halves of the same person, then the child is the product of this unity—and therefore not a union of two people but another miracle child of one parent. It should be remembered here, too, that the nuns told Amanda she was as good as new after the birth of this child—hence the notion of a virgin birth.

Jeannie Thompson and Anita Miller Garner point out that “Barrett Clare has suffered from feelings of neglect, isolation, abandonment, and despair” (114), much like the daughter Quentin. Amanda has been carrying the “cargo (title of the novel’s first section) of this guilt since her adolescence. Although her second child gives her a second chance to be a good mother, that would only be a partial atonement for her “sin.” Her decision after he is born to seek out her lost child and make amends finally puts her at peace with herself, and the novel ends with a positive, uplifting sense of hope. Therefore, Amanda’s parody of “The Lord’s Prayer” that closes the novel is not more blasphemy. Rather, it is an affirmation of faith, faith in herself, but also faith in the value of relationships: “My will be done … My life on my terms,” she begins, adding “my daughter, my son” (353). Clearly this is a more genuine, more productive view of her life than the one forced upon Caddy Compson. Caddy loses her belief in her right to receive or give love. Amanda allows herself in the end to do both.

That the reader perceives a positive future for Amanda and both of her children contrasts distinctly with the picture Faulkner provides in his appendix of Caddy as the mistress of a Nazi officer.15 Whereas Caddy continues to live the life of a damned soul, Amanda is ready to start over. She realizes not only that it is never too late to begin anew but that one can make up for past mistakes. Second chances can be taken to improve one’s lot. One’s role in life is not as immutable as the people of the South had traditionally perceived it to be. Gilchrist’s novel, then, provides the reader with a more optimistic view of the future of the guilt-ridden Southerner.


  1. A list of people one cannot marry, according to Mississippi Law, now or at the time this part of the novel is set, includes first cousins. Therefore, it is accurate to call the sexual relationship between Amanda and Guy incest.

  2. Of the mother in particular (of siblings involved in incest), Hall writes, “[t]ypically she is either passive and dependent or else rigid and puritanical … not present to her family, often relinquishing her responsibilities to her daughter and sometimes abandoning he children altogether” (4). It is easy to see that this passage is an accurate description of Mrs. Compson.

  3. André Bleikasten apparently agrees with Thompson’s notion when he writes that because of the name Caddy chooses for her child, “symbolically, Quentin II is … the fruit of the imaginary incest” (224).

  4. John T. Irwin points out that Quentin’s narcissistic view of Caddy is particularly evident in a scene in which Quentin looks down upon Caddy lying in the water: “The narcissistic implication is that his sister lying on her back in the stream is like a mirror image of himself” (41).

  5. Lee Clinton Jenkins explains this “narcissistic self love [as] that [which] seeks others only to the extent that they can be used to fortify the ego against its sense of underlying vulnerability, satisfy its self-justifying needs, and stave off the threat of its own dissolution” (149).

  6. In theories similar to Hall’s, Warwick Wadlington describes “Quentin’s desperate fantasy of incest” as “a rigorous extension of the inbreeding attitude of a household that feels itself surrounded by relative nonentities” (416), and André Bleikasten explains that “[i]n sociohistorical terms, [Quentin’s] obsession with incest may reflect the panic of a declining social class which struggles for survival but refuses any influx of outside blood” (227).

  7. One of the most obvious echoes of The Sound and the Fury occurs at this point in Gilchrist’s novel: just as the Compsons sell Benjy’s pasture to send Quentin to Harvard, Amanda’s grandmother sells a “sixty-acre stand of wooded land, and puts the money into an account for the next six years of Amanda’s life” (21), during which she goes to school away from home. Like Quentin, Amanda will not return home as expected to continue the family line (though she does not commit suicide).

  8. In Sally Page’s explanation of “the role of motherhood,” Caddy’s maternal instinct is a positive reaction to her own motherlessness: “The role of motherhood fosters communication and self-transcendence, for child-bearing unites the woman with the ultimate purpose of nature and enables her to defy her own isolation and to create relation through the establishment of the family. The ideal of self-sacrifice on which effective motherhood is based provides mankind with an ethic that can bring moral order to the chaos of existence” (46). Caddy’s ability to love enough for both herself and her mother is quite admirable, given her circumstances.

  9. As Peter Swiggart explains, “Caddy becomes a helpless victim both of her capacity for love and of her brother’s efforts to pervert that love into abstract morality. Her promiscuity reflects the self hatred which Quentin has helped to force upon her” (92).

  10. Mary Dell Fletcher discusses the Puritanism of the Compsons in detail in “William Faulkner and Residual Calvinism.”

  11. Guy’s belief in an Old Testament God is previously revealed when, filled with remorse in the earlier stages of their sexual experimentation, he suddenly puts an end to it, telling Amanda, “I want God to let me be good at baseball, Sissy. I want to be on the football team next year. If I do this he isn’t going to let me” (12).

  12. Gilchrist, then, repeats in this novel Faulkner’s “warnings,” as summarized by Amos N. Wilder, “against fossilized religious sanctions, conceptions, or rituals, which, detached from their healthful or vital sources, become malign tools of social control, thus lending a specious absolute authority to inhuman usage” (125).

  13. Elizabeth M. Kerr might also agree with the view of Miss Quentin as the Christ figure, given her notion that Caddy’s love for her daughter “might be the only means of saving Caddy” (11). And one can infer agreement as well from the connection Douglas B. Hill makes between Caddy and the Virgin Mary (35).

  14. Jeannie Thompson and Anita Miller Garner discuss the Christian imagery surrounding the birth of Amanda’s second child, although they warn against too much reliance upon Christian myth in interpreting the novel. Much like Faulkner, Gilchrist “takes what she needs [from Christianity] to shape her narrative” (110, emphasis added).

  15. Interestingly, Gilchrist also wrote a kind of appendix to her novel. In her fourth collection of short stories, Light Can Be Bath Wave and Particle, two of the stories continue The Annunciation. The first of these focuses on the life of Barrett Clare and her son; thus, in direct contrast to Faulkner’s appendix, we are given a sense of the continuation of the family line.

Works Cited

Arthos, John. “Ritual and Humor in the Writing of William Faulkner.” Accent 9 (1948): 17–30.

Bassett, John Earl. “Family Conflict in The Sound and the Fury.” Studies in American Fiction 9 (1981): 1–20.

Baum, Catherine B. “The Beautiful One: Caddy Compson as Heroine of The Sound and the Fury.” Modern Fiction Studies 13 (1967): 33–44.

Bleikasten, André. The Most Splendid Failure Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1976.

Bowling, Lawrence E. “Faulkner and the Theme of Innocence.” Kenyon Review 20 (1958): 466–87.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Random House, 1929.

Fletcher, Mary Dell. “William Faulkner and Residual Calvinism.” Southern Studies (1979): 199–216.

Gilchrist, Ellen, The Annunciation. Boston: Little Brown, 1983.

Hall, Constance Hill. Incest in Faulkner: A Metaphor for the Fall. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1983.

Hardy, John Edward. “William Faulkner: The Legend Behind the Legend.” Man in the Modern Novel. Ed. John Edward Hardy. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1964. 137–58.

Hill, Douglas B. “Faulkner’s Caddy.” The Canadian Review of American Studies 7 (1976): 26–38.

Irwin, John T. Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1975.

Jenkins, Lee Clinton. Faulkner and Black-White Relations: A Psycho-Analytical Approach. New York: Columbia UP, 1981.

Kerr, Elizabeth M. “William Faulkner and the Southern Concept of Woman.” Mississippi Quarterly 15 (1962): 1–16.

Page, Sally. Faulkner’s Women: Characterization and Meaning. Delano, Fla.: Everett, 1972.

Powers, Lyall. Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha Comedy. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1980.

Swiggart, Peter. The Art of Faulkner’s Novels. Austin: U of Texas P, 1962.

Thompson, Jeannie, and Anita Miller Garner. “The Miracle of Realism: The Bid for Self-Knowledge in the Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist.” Southern Quarterly 22 (1983): 100–14.

Thompson, Lawrence. William Faulkner: An Introduction and Interpretation. American Authors and Critics Series. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963.

Wadlington, Warwick. “The Sound and the Fury: A Logical Tragedy.” American Literature 53 (1981): 409–23.

Wilder, Amos N. Theology and Modern Literature. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.

Further Reading

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Bain, Robert. “Ellen Gilchrist.” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain, pp. 169–84. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Presents a brief overview of Gilchrist's life and career, and traces both her major themes and critical response to her work.

Jenkins, Victoria. “Charmed Loves.” Chicago Tribune Books (22 May 1994): 5.

In this review, Jenkins discusses the techniques Gilchrist employed in Starcarbon.

MacDonald, D. R. “More Dreamy Dreams.” Washington Post Book World 25, No. 36 (3 September 1995): 6.

MacDonald asserts that Gilchrist's The Age of Miracles would be better with fewer stories highlighting Rhoda, who can be too much to take at times.

McDonnell, Jane Taylor. “Controlling the Past and the Future: Two-Headed Anna in Ellen Gilchrist's The Anna Papers.” In The Anna Book: Searching for Anna in Literary History, edited by Mickey Pearlman, pp. 187–93. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992.

McDonnell analyzes the role Anna Hand plays between her family's past and future in Gilchrist's The Anna Papers.

Additional coverage of Gilchrist's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 113 and 116; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 41 and 61; Contemporary Novelists;Contemporary Popular Writers;Contemporary Southern Writers;Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 130; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors;Literature Resource Center;Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1 and 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 9; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 14.

Dorie Larue (essay date Spring 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4778

SOURCE: “Progress and Prescription: Ellen Gilchrist's Southern Belles,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 69-78.

[In the following essay, Larue traces the common features of Gilchrist's female protagonists and complains that they take no positive action to better their own lives.]

Kathryn Lee Seidel describes the southern belle in the American novel as young, unmarried, skilled in the equestrian arts and in music, and the daughter of a landed (therefore aristocratic) father. Exuberant, vain and naive, she feels she deserves a “gallant cavalier” (10). Certainly that characterization of the southern belle appears in varying disguises in the work of many southern writers from John Pendleton Kennedy and John William De Forest to Ellen Glasgow and Gail Godwin. These characters range in degree of self-awareness from total obliviousness in the holes of their own logic to states of epiphany. One of the most modern treatments of the southern woman is by Ellen Gilchrist, whose female protagonists remain faithful to this tradition and also almost exclusively to that end of the continuum that precludes much self-awareness.

Ellen Gilchrist portrays many of her protagonists at different stages of their lives, in tragicomedic situations, and in such a way that attests to Gilchrist’s near-perfect ear for diction and eye for detail. Her protagonists are capable of sparkling observation and charming witticism, and even derring-do, but these characters are incapable of any kind of permanent, positive action in their own lives that actually improves their lot for any length of time. Somehow, of Ellen Gilchrist, we expect more.

In her first collection of short stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, female protagonists such as Rhoda, Mattile, Alisha and Amanda are guided exclusively by their desires, lusts, greed and rebellious natures. Each is someone’s eternal rebel daughter, and they all seem to be caught in some arrested stage of character evolution. Many of these women are spoiled adolescents bent on pleasure, or aging beauties and rich, bored socialites who are capable of pure fearlessness, but never quite capable of real courage. In this collection, Gilchrist gives us only one character, Nora Jane Whittington, who does not fit Seidel’s southern belle circumstantial criteria (she is poor and fatherless) and whose spirit is more one of inner tenacity than one of flash and pomp. The rest of these ever rich or nouveau poor characters are, as Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post observed, bored, self-indulgent people (B1, B10).

After The Annunciation was published critics expressed the hope that Gilchrist was “reversing a trend” set by her initial southern belles (Thompson and Garner 104). Amanda McCamey, the protagonist of this novel, has a bit of the verve of the old characters from In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, but Amanda’s main objective, unlike theirs, eventually becomes self-knowledge, in contrast to all those other tortured daughters who have come before her. Jeanie Thompson and Anita Garner acknowledged hopefully that this character might be the positive role model prototype of future Gilchrist characters and that Gilchrist “may go further … to develop a realism that not only entertains but enobles” (114). Unfortunately, so far Gilchrist has not engineered this accomplishment.

In Gilchrist’s two short story collections, Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle (1989) and I Cannot Get You Close Enough (1990), old characters and plot lines weave themselves though the pages and a few new characters are set forth. The old characters are her usual southern belles, with their characteristic ways of handling reality, except, again, for the reappearance of Nora Jean Whittington. Nora Jean, as likable as ever, does not so much do the right things, however, as that she does not do the wrong things, yet she is capable of consistently listening to her primary feelings and she acts in small spontaneous ways. And in her charming omniscient style, Gilchrist approves:

A cold wind was blowing off the ocean. She picked up a piece of driftwood and added it to the fire. She sank down upon the sand. She was carrying ten pounds of babies but she moved as gracefully as ever. She wiggled around until her back was against the boulder, sitting up very straight, not giving in to the cold or the wind. I’m one of those people that could go to the Himalayas, she decided. Because I never give in to cold. If you hunch over it will get you.

(Light Can Be 34)

Yet Rhoda Manning, shown again as a child in “The Time Capsule,” like most of the other protagonists in the same collection, continues her fussing and scrapping. Her mother’s reaction to one of her explosions sums her up:

Her mother dropped her arms. She sighed a long deep sigh. Rhoda was too much. Too smart for her own good. Too wild, too crazy, too hard to manage or control. She was a long way from the sweet little redheaded girl Ariane had ordered from Jesus. Thinking of Jesus, Ariane remembered her duty. She fought back. “You just calm down, young lady. You just stop all that talk right this minute.”


This is another story in the same vein as a previous one, “Nineteen Forty-one” from the collection Drunk With Love, where, as in “The Time Capsule,” Rhoda’s hot-headedness may carry the story but rarely wins her more than little battles, skirmishes, the last word—never any kind of triumph from being diminished, or more importantly being diminished because of her sex (26–35). In this story Rhoda is stuck on a wild horse at her father’s insistence and is consequently thrown and almost killed. Her rudeness comes off as quirky and cute; the focus is on Rhoda as a little toughie, and not on the masculine forces in her life that have sent her on her smashing, downhill gallop in the first place. In effect, “The Time Capsule” is a kind of rewrite of “Nineteen Forty-one.” In “The Expansion of the Universe,” also from the earlier collection, Rhoda appears as a teenager, loudly defiant, wild on the surface, but at the same time routinely traditional, a young woman who diets and dreams of Bob Rosen who will save her from her life of boredom and tedious everyday people by pinning his fraternity pin on her blouse. Rhoda seems to have matured very little in a later story, “Mexico,” when, now in her forties, her dreams include running off with a matador and having his children:

I will go back with them [to Mexico] in September. To kill the beautiful and awkward pamplona blanco and pluck them and eat them. Anything is better than being passionless and bored. … Bullfighters are waiting and blood on the arena floor. Blood of the bull and fast hot music and Mexico. “I should have left a long time ago,” she began humming. Progress is possible, she decided. But it’s very, very slow.

(Light Can Be 130)

For patient readers, perhaps too slow.

Rhoda appears again, in “Some Blue Hills at Sundown” from the Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle collection, playing Scarlett O’Hara to a fault. The rebelliousness gimmick here is wrung for all it is worth. At sixteen Rhoda (Gilchrist doesn’t mind jumping back and forth in time) is intent on seducing Bob Rosen:

She pulled away. “I want to do it. You said you’d do it to me. You promised me. You swore you would.”

“When did I do that?”

“You know.”

“Rhoda, Rhoda, Rhoda. Jesus. Exactly where did you envision this deflowering taking place?”

“In the car, I guess. Or anywhere. Where do people go?”


This is a rendezvous arranged by Rhoda with her supposedly dying boyfriend—Rhoda is a sucker for romanticism, the more histrionic the better. She had “told her mother and father that if they didn’t let her go she would kill herself and they believed her, so caught up in their terrible triangle and half-broken marriage and tears and lies and sadness that they couldn’t fight with her that year” (27). Rhoda’s behavior and personality seem to mirror the image of women as described by George Fitzhugh, an articulate spokesman for slavery and the subordinate role of women in the Old South, who wrote: “So long as she is nervous, fickle, capricious, delicate, diffident and dependent, man will worship and adore her. Her weakness is her strength, and her true art is to cultivate and improve that weakness” (qtd. in Scott 17).

In Gilchrist’s latest book, Net of Jewels (1992), we have still yet another version of Rhoda Manning’s life stretching from the time she is a freshman at Vanderbilt to a brief reflection at the end of the book when Rhoda is fifty. Gilchrist’s treatment of Rhoda does not live up to the jacket’s promise, that Rhoda is on “a path of self-assertion, she protests and resists—against her daddy’s will, against her mother’s limited expectations of her, against confines that are too small to contain her burgeoning intuition that life is richer and darker than her complacent surroundings. Rhoda yearns for meaning and beauty, profundity and mystery…” But other than an incredible rudeness to both her mother and father, driving her automobile too fast, attending parties when her parents did not wish her to do so, Rhoda’s “path of assertiveness” is objectified in a vague friendship with a gay decorator who appears briefly, mostly at the beginning of the novel and at its end; one dinner with an intelligent woman lawyer who soon afterwards disappears; and arranging other lawyers for her maid’s murder trial (one with whom she has an affair, thus capitalizing on the situation). Rhoda does not finish college or even her sophomore year at college, and after a brief marriage and two babies, she returns to her father’s home, jobless (almost unaware that a job is an option) and throughout the remainder of the book keeps busy having affairs, an abortion, partying and spending her father’s money. But as if Gilchrist were trying to show some inner vision, the topic of civil rights is bandied about by a few characters and the gay decorator as iconoclast appears briefly from time to time, but their focus is never sustained. The novel sprawls, and Rhoda does not move toward anything in particular, nor are we too sure she wants anything to move forward to. Her indulgence and her spoiled obliviousness ultimately have no point, nor are they redeemed by Gilchrist’s perfunctory insertions concerning civil and gay rights. With all the many current national problems such as environmental protection and homelessness, and on the larger front, starvation in Somalia, violence in Serbia and its neighbors, the Gulf war and its possible recurrence, Rhoda, because she does not clearly square off with the social problems of her times, but merely pretends to—she dabbles in them—comes off not only as a spoiled bore, but as an unconscious, spoiled bore.

Confusing as always is Gilchrist’s attitude toward the character she has created. If dramatic irony is a technique in this book, its goal is never realized, because Gilchrist never ties up ends nor allows Rhoda an iota of insight. She never learns anything. At its best, if this book could be called a slice of life about a southern woman who never matured, perhaps we could feel less cheated, but again, we have uncomfortable flashes all along in the novel that Gilchrist actually respects Rhoda Manning. On the last page, for example, her father is still taking care of her. These pages indicate that he will continue to do so and that Gilchrist feels this is a reasonable conclusion:

“You just stop thinking about all that mess down there in Alexandria. Just try to sleep. Everything’s okay. It’s going to be fine.” He put his hand on my arm and patted me. He leaned up into the cockpit and looked at the pilot’s map. He took dominion everywhere. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.


Gilchrist then tacks a coda onto the end: Rhoda is fifty and looking back, in the company of her suddenly reappearing friend, Charles, the decorator, who is dying. In these few pages, a propos of nothing, focus is on Rhoda’s friendship with the elusive gay, almost as if she were trying to make him a symbol for injustice. Gilchrist does not focus on what logically should follow as implied in the premise of the book (and the promise of the publishers). If Rhoda is satisfied that she is a success, is more sensitive, intelligently retrospective than her family and peers as Gilchrist portrays her, the reader has a right to know how this came about. After all, we left her (a few paragraphs before) in the comfortable hands of her father. And if, instead, she is a failure, why doesn’t Gilchrist show us she believes Rhoda has failed, and why aren’t we allowed an evaluation of a lifetime of selling her soul to her father, to one of the last bastions of a southern patriarchy?

In Rhoda, as well as in most of Gilchrist’s other characters, the image of the southern belle remains, and she has lived her literary life in the pages of Gilchrist’s work singularly oblivious to new realities of career, political activity, education and self-image. When will these characters be allowed to grow up? Readers, no matter how amused by their antics and predicaments, can hardly continue to be charmed by the unthinking, naughty, incorrigible, ineffective and spoiled rich, especially since, in real life, feminist awareness has changed so many people for the better, and the more interesting. Gilchrist’s everyday, yet vivid, outrageous people who have delighted us with such vigor—chauffeurs and hairdressers, nasty children and devious parents, lovers and haters—sustained as they initially were by Gilchrist’s unobrusive omniscience (as close as anyone to O’Connor’s), apt detail and yes, unmistakable occasional truths, must still grow or move or change, not continually be rewritten or constantly summoned to reappear in new guise. Even were these personalities to reflect what Gilchrist may believe to be the true stasis of the New South, as I doubt seriously they do, eventually some character needs to tune in to politics, to painful responsibility, to self-awareness, to something outside their own skin. If nothing else, odds demand such a character.

Gilchrist’s books are churned out like clockwork almost yearly (1981, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992). Perhaps because readers are given this profusion of character eccentricities in such rapid sequence, without any kind of consistently discernible intellectual development or engagement with their situations in any meaningful way, their footstomping has become less amusing. Gilchrist refuses to let her characters rise to certain consciousness, either because her technique is truly entertaining (for a while) and she reasons “why argue with success?” or, more likely, because she herself has mistaken obnoxiousness for the spirit of feminism. Her characters are more thought about than thought through. A classic like Death of a Salesman would probably become tiresome too if it were rewritten over the years with different situations but with the same kinds of character responses. Even Archie Bunker managed to grow over the seasons. To write about the same characters and have them evolve is certainly a difficult task, but one can’t help thinking that Gilchrist, above all southern writers, has the talent to pull it off.

Sometimes the portrayals of both men and women become close to dangerously overdone: her traditional-minded black servants never once have an active political thought. Men too are fatuously southern, or imperfectly rendered. A Chinese geneticist has thoughts only a little less complicated and naive than Dudley Manning, Rhoda’s insensitive, long-suffering father. Unlike Joyce Carol Oates, Gilchrist’s skill at dealing with the inner consciousness of the highly educated suffers credibility. And, unlike Glasgow’s steel magnolias who are treated in the beginning with irony and at the end with compassion (Scott 222), Gilchrist’s characters earn nothing for their pains but a few laughs, and at too few points, glimmers of larger truths. If Gilchrist could only keep her technique, gain some vision…

Though Gilchrist’s initial success and critical acclaim have cooled considerably, most of us are seduced into buying her books because of our love for her original detail, her witty bon mot, the clever vignettes, the sheer talent she has for catching a theme with one or two words, fleeting as it is. In “The Gauzy Edge of Paradise,” for example, Dianne effectively reflects a rightful ambiguity about dieting: “I was leaning against the portable dishwasher wondering what effect Sandor’s coming would have on our diet. A diet’s a very delicate thing. You have to keep your momentum going. You have to stick to your routine” (Victory Over Japan 97). And the ending of the story shows whole, unfair, priority-skewed worlds:

I pulled my knees up against my soft full stomach. I would never weigh 114 again as long as I lived. Nothing would change [emphasis added]. Good girls would press their elegant rib cages against their beautiful rich athletic husbands. Passionate embraces would ensue. I would be lying on a bed drinking chocolate milkshakes. Eating cookies. Wishing Lanier hadn’t given the Escatrol away.


But the themes involving subsequent characters are never developed much further than “people are like this.” Themes are invoked, they flash a bit and then are gone, only to reappear again in newer storylines, from the mouths of some similarly hopeless characters. Gilchrist squanders her important themes, her wildly funny and unique characters in lightweight treatment.

Perhaps it is true there are many aging kinds of southern women languishing about who were once rich and bright and new and are now hard-drinking and comically bitter, or worse. But in such profusion? And forever? Ann Firor Scott believes that what has happened to the image of southern women in literature can be discerned from three different novels: Ellen Glasgow’s Virginia (1913) whose protagonist’s romantic illusions end in dust and ash, Mary Johnstone’s Hagar (1923) in which the protagonist questions cultural tradition from childhood on and Frances Newman’s The Hard-Boiled Virgin (1926), which is a satire designed to “provide the coup de grace to the outworn tradition of the Southern Belle” (224). As far as feminist theory then, Ellen Gilchrist’s heroines have managed to take a step backward when compared with the protagonists of these earlier novels. Gilchrist owes us a character who displays her true sensibilities and courage, because isn’t this, after all, what feminism demands of us? Mary Allen, writing in The Necessary Blankness: Women in Major American Fiction of the Sixties, laments the continued failure of writers to create positive portraits of women. The American woman, she observes, is portrayed as incapable of action and consistently immersed in the dilemmas of men and children. Allen also says they are characterized by four other qualities: they have what she calls a “blankness,” a lack of outward, important active response; they lack humor (we can hardly accuse Gilchrist or her characters of this one); they are materialistic; they are failed mothers (7–12). Why is it, Allen wonders, that women’s natural need for many kinds of development has not worked its way into our literature? Surely we are not still stuck in the confessional mode, especially if we consider the work of Edna O’Brien, Nadine Gordimer, Bobbie Ann Mason, to name but a few. Gilchrist’s characters seem blithely unaware that they have anything to confess. Many or most of them wear masks that demand glorious rebelliousness and self-aggrandizing generalizations about their own natures. This simply precludes much self-awareness. And Gilchrist herself focuses almost exclusively on their actions rather than allowing them to indulge in any kind of self-analysis. In “Revenge,” for example, Gilchrist promises her readers that she does indeed have a social, problem-solving awareness of women’s roles in this Rhoda, a subtly fine rendition of a ten-year-old painfully engaged in a battle with inequality. Rhoda is prompted to steal away in the dark to leap her boy cousin's forbidden broadjump. Her plaid formal lying in the dust, she sails up into the night and over the obstacle, only to sum up the awful lives of most of Gilchrist's characters: “Sometimes I think whatever has happened since has been of no real interest to me” (In the Land 124). We are somehow let down because the promise remains unfulfilled.

A definitive line can be drawn between confessional writings which are associated with the beginnings of consciousness raising and the kind of literature which results when women’s writings go beyond. Elinor Langer writes: “In confessional [literature] the self runs rampant; in autobiography, the writer uses the self to inspect the world” (10). Perhaps this should be true for fiction as well. Mary Allen’s complaint against Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood, for example, is that she never engages in self-analysis.

Langer quotes Gloria Steinem’s description of the second stage of feminism which illustrates this point: “after the first flush of feminist understanding that women, no matter how diverse, share the common dilemmas of sexual caste, the second stage … is measuring the diversity and understanding what chasms there are to bridge” (13). Perhaps then a third stage for writers might be one in which at least an occasional character attains a genuine political conscience. Where in Gilchrist’s work is there such a character, and does not a constant exclusion of this kind of character imply a gap in the writer’s consciousness?

Allen asks for five major defining character traits in female literary characters: a sense of humor, a job, the ability to intelligently assess their own choices toward motherhood or nonmotherhood, an enlightened attitude toward sexual freedom and some self-analysis (178–85). Gilchrist’s Anna Hand (The Anna Papers) possesses two of these characteristics, the sense of humor and a job. And to be fair, her actions towards her niece Olivia show at least a semblance of conscious choice about nurturing. Anna does commit suicide, true, but not for a neurotic reason: for her suicide is an escape from her terminal illness. Compared to Gilchrist’s other characters, however, Anna, who is a writer and a thinker, seems to lack history and motivation. She is regrettably less interesting than some of Gilchrist’s less admirable characters. The characterization of Anna pales beside Gilchrist’s treatment of those who lead more shallow lives. Amanda in The Annunciation, our best and initial hope, a woman who overcomes her alcoholism, her materialism and in the end embraces a kind of self-determinism, seems contrived, plunked down as she is by Gilchrist among the philosophers and poets and potters in an academic section of the Ozarks. She is not much better off than Alisha Terrebonne in “There’s a Garden of Eden” who is fully cognizant of the fact that her era of renowned beauty is drawing to a close and that her life has been one of folly: “And that is what I get for devoting my life to love instead of wisdom” (In the Land 47). Dialogue among the characters deteriorates, too, in The Annunciation’s second half when Amanda rubs elbows with the more educated and independent. As Yardley observes, their conversations fall into that “sentimental nonsense of the sort that passed for profundity on the college campus in the 60’s or 70’s” (10).

Another problem with Gilchrist’s development of strong characters is succinctly reflected in the ruminations of one of her own protagonists. LeLe Arnold in “Traveler” describes herself: “I was dazzling. I was LeLe Arnold, the wildest girl in the Mississippi Delta, the girl who swam Lake Jefferson without a boat or a life vest. I was LeLe, the girl who would do anything” (In the Land 151). Gilchrist evidences such a delight in depravity that it is difficult to conclude that she does not wholeheartedly approve of LeLe’s description of herself. Even if it were possible to ascribe this phenomenon as Gilchrist’s too subtle control of dramatic irony, we simply do not see any sign of sustained true movement toward a political consciousness in the characters. Those stories that did run on the dramatic irony that so enthralled readers over the years, when reschemed in new settings, now seem sad. In “Revenge,” for example, Rhoda’s hell-bent attitude has not helped shape her life in any positive way because twenty-some-odd years later she remains totally unaware of the terrible irony of reading certain passages from Hemingway as her father drives her to a doctor for an abortion:

The love story had finally started. Then she came into the room, shining in her youth and tall striding beauty, and the carelessness the wind had made of her hair. She had pale, almost olive-colored skin, a profile that could break your, or anyone’s heart, and her dark hair, of a thick texture, hung down over her shoulders. ‘Hello, my great beauty,’ the Colonel said. This is more like it, Rhoda thought.

(In the Land 87)

And after the abortion, back home:

I’m beautiful, she thought, running her hands over her body. I’m skinny and I’m beautiful … I’m skinny and I’m beautiful and no one can make me do anything. … She began to laugh. She raised her hand to her lips and great peals of clear abandoned laughter poured out between her fingers, filling the tiny room, laughter back at the wild excited face in the bright mirror.


(Not so surprisingly, this same scene is rewritten almost word for word in Net of Jewels.) As Brian Morton notes, “It is hard to separate Ellen Gilchrist’s failures of execution from the emotional failures of her characters” (368). But at any rate the characters are either happily recycled or are spouting comments reminiscent of old, familiar characters. If their stories were sprinkled among other stories whose characters sported some semblance of self-observation and insight, we could then be assured of Gilchrist’s use of heavy dramatic irony as a point of interpretation. But not one ever succeeds in lessening her darker forces to any great extent. They are incapable of coping with disruption in their lives, and what solutions these characters do find are indulgent on their part and overused on Gilchrist’s. In the latest stories and novellas, most of the newer characters, as well as the old characters in new situations, are still staying busy getting their rich daddies and husbands to pay, partying, drinking alone, dieting, popping pills, getting married or unmarried. In Net of Jewels, after Rhoda’s separation and months of living with her rich parents while the maid cares for her children, she is given a stockholder’s position in her father’s business. This action (on the last page) resolves the conflict. This solution is much like Lelia McLaurin’s, in the earlier In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, who escapes from the madness of the sixties social revolution with a temporary fix—she goes off to the Gulf with her solvent husband and a shaker of martinis. What John Melmoth aptly noted about the early Drunk With Love pertains to Gilchrist’s recent work: there is a sense of “things done well because they have been done before” (246). What is missing is not, as Meg Wolitzer believes, “a thread of commonality rising through the stories” (2, 12)—we have almost too much of that—but instead a linear development in the commonality of the characters that reflects women who show not only a degree of self-awareness, but also some degree of ennoblement.

Works Cited

Allen, Mary. The Necessary Blankness: Women in Major American Fiction of the Sixties. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1976.

Gilchrist, Ellen. The Anna Papers. Boston: Little, 1988.

———. The Annunciation. Boston: Little, 1983.

———. Drunk With Love. Boston: Little, 1986.

———. I Cannot Get You Close Enough. Boston: Little, 1990.

———. In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. Boston: Little, 1981.

———. Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle. Boston: Little, 1989.

———. Net of Jewels. Boston: Little, 1992.

———. Victory Over Japan. Boston: Little, 1983.

Langer, Elinor. Introduction. Fine Lines/The Book of Ms. Fiction. Ed. Ruth Sullivan. New York: Scribner’s, 1981.

Melmoth, John. “Poor Little Rich Belles.” Times Literary Supplement 6 Mar. 1987, 246.

Morton, Brian. “Southern Death.” Times Literary Supplement 6 Apr. 1984. 368.

Scott, Anne Firor. The Southern Lady: From Pedestal, 1830–1930. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970.

Seidel, Kathryn Lee. The Southern Belle in the American Novel. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1985.

Thompson, Jeanie, and Anita Miller Garner. “The Miracle of Realism: The Bid for Self-Knowledge in the Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist. Southern Quarterly 22.1 (1983): 101–14.

Wolitzer, Meg. Rev. of Drunk With Love. Los Angeles Times Book Review 14 Sept. 1986. 2.

Yardley, Jonathan. “Knockout ‘Victory’: The Best Stories Yet From Ellen Gilchrist.” Washington Post 12 Sept. 1984. 8–10.

Trev Broughton (review date 1 July 1994)

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SOURCE: “Too Many Hands,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4761, July 1, 1994, p. 21.

[In the following review, Broughton complains about the pretentiousness of the main characters in Gilchrist's Starcarbon.]

There are forty-five names mapped on to the family tree that prefaces this novel: forty-five characters, from five generations of Hands and Mannings. Readers who have followed Ellen Gilchrist’s saga of the Deep South will have a head start on newcomers and will recognize Olivia de Havilland Hand as the half-Native American niece, rescued by her novelist aunt, Anna (of The Anna Papers and elsewhere), and restored, in I Cannot Get You Close Enough, to her birthright of wealth and privilege as the long-lost daughter of the feckless and tipsy heart-throb, Daniel Hand. Even those familiar with the intricacies of Hand genealogy, and with its generations of trusty family retainers, will still have to contend with Olivia’s equally fecund Cherokee kin. To stay within the compass of human memory, sagas traditionally involve plenty of smiting hip and thigh. This is what Gilchrist’s oeuvre badly needs: a bout of bloody feuding to dispose of excess personnel.

Starcarbon unapologetically rehearses Gilchrist’s pet theme: the family romance. Boy meets girl. Girl is in love with her emotionally unavailable father. Boy wins girl by being unlike Daddy—happy ending—or by resembling him—unhappy ending. Either way, droves of psychiatrists are kept in full employment, and the Hand-Manning genes survive to fight another day. It is now the summer of 1991, and Olivia is back in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, trying to balance her allegiance to her tribal roots with her fascination for the glamorous “world of possibility”, represented by Daniel and his Old Money. Should Olivia learn to programme computers in Navajo? Should she return to her prissy liberal arts degree in North Carolina? Should she settle down with Bobby Tree, her rodeo-champion boyfriend? Who will pay her therapist if she does? Meanwhile, in New Orleans, her similarly troubled half-sister, Jessie, is paying the price for marrying a Daniel-substitute—the beautiful but unreliable King Mallison. She represents to Olivia all that is disgusting—and seductive—about life within the southern clan. With a new baby pinned to her breast like a brooch, and plagued by a wastrel husband, Jessie may be both bored and beleaguered, but at least there are plenty of cousins, servants and psychiatrists on hand to take the strain.

For all its insistence on history and regional difference, Gilchrist’s saga seems to sieve its heroines into a curious uniformity. Olivia’s life may have the trappings of modernity; she may be an expert bareback rider; she may even have a surrogate father called Little Sun, who speaks in portentous Tonto-like decrees. Yet with the same armour of “lipstick and powder” and the same flimsy cultural weapons, she seems to be fighting exactly the same battles as her southern foremothers: how to keep two men happy and still have time for an education.

Perhaps the only difference between this young generation of neurotic nineteen-year-olds and their great aunts at the same age is their fluency in pop psychology. When Rhoda Manning announced, in Net of Jewels, that she “was cathected by a narcissist”, it was disturbing and piquant: a painful spitting-out of the obvious. Olivia and her friends have been nursed on “goddamn psychology bullshit”: they spout Jung and Everyday Zen and “interrupted bonding”, and advise each other that “the joy of loving someone is in loving them, not in being loved”.

The problem of reconciling autonomy and love is still a perfectly respectable, even sympathetic, theme. Yet Gilchrist’s contemporary protagonists manage somehow to sully the drama with their ersatz knowingness. “Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes”, aunt Helen replies ecstatically to Mike’s proposal of marriage. “And the thing Mike liked remembering about that moment was that he knew she had never read Joyce.” Mike should be ashamed of himself.

Away from the hormonal maelstrom, Gilchrist’s minor characters are sketched with warmth and zest. The adolescent twins, Taylor and Tucker, are at once nightmarish and horribly plausible. Daniel’s farm-manager, Spook, is memorably wry. The novel’s ageing roués and their gold-digging mistresses, the psychiatrists, even the horses are crisply drawn. But the central characters lapse too frequently into pretentiousness to ensure our loyalty, and the family tree may soon need pruning.

Julia Glass (review date 11 June 1995)

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SOURCE: “The Rough-Edged Romantic,” in Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1995, p. 6.

[In the following review, Glass discusses the world Gilchrist creates in her fiction and asserts that the character of Rhoda is the dominating force behind Gilchrist's collection The Age of Miracles.]

Most fiction writers create in each of the stories they tell an autonomous world, filled with characters and settings that exist nowhere else. The various worlds they make may be neighborly, like planets in a single solar system, but each is unique. Ellen Gilchrist, however, delights in re-exploring the same world again and again. In nearly a dozen novels and story collections, Gilchrist has embroidered and reembroidered the lives of characters like Miss Crystal and Mr. Manny, an incompatible yet devoted New Orleans society couple; Traceleen, Miss Crystal’s adoring, circumspect maid; the Mannings and the Whittingtons, bourgeois Southern families full of dreamy rebels and hard-nosed tycoons.

Such familiars populate The Age of Miracles, but it is the irrepressibly scandalous Rhoda Manning who dominates the book; 8 of the 16 stories are hers. Rhoda, whom we met as a child in Victory over Japan, who married and became a mother in Net of Jewels, is now a divorced femme fatale on the wrong side of 50, a modestly successful writer and a grandmother several times over. As always, her adventures are brazen and self-indulgent, seedy yet oddly heroic.

Rhoda is struggling to hold onto youth, her very essence, without denying the obligations of motherhood or the affronts of aging (not that she doesn’t fail often). In “A Statue of Aphrodite,” an ostensibly chivalrous obstetrician falls in love with Rhoda after seeing her airbrushed likeness in the magazine Southern Living. She has her doubts but tries to temper them with reality, noting that when “a reasonably good-looking doctor who makes at least two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year hugs you by the elevator, you don’t forget it. You mull it, fantasize it, angelize it. Was it him? Was it me? Am I still cute or not? Could you get AIDS from a doctor? Maybe and maybe not. All that blood. All those C-sections on fourteen-year-old girls. There is always Nonoxynol-9 and condoms, not that anyone of my generation can take that seriously.” (Rhoda may be romantic, but she doesn’t mince words.)

When the doctor tries to cajole her into a Laura Ashley dress, to accompany him to his daughter’s wedding, Rhoda finds herself mired in family hysterics and midlife male neurosis. Rueful but nonchalant, her dignity resilient as ever, she extricates herself gamely.

In “A Wedding in Jackson,” she hot-rods from Fayetteville, Ark., to Jackson, Miss., to make a family wedding. Overdressed, without an escort, Rhoda ends up dancing with “every little girl at the party who looked like she needed someone to dance with.” She sheds outdated grudges and examines anew the foibles of her extended clan. When her 11-year-old grandson sulks because he does not like his mother’s new boyfriend, Rhoda takes him aside and talks to him with whimsical frankness:

“‘I’m going to send you a book about a man named Oedipus,’ I said. ‘It will explain the psychological ramifications of this problem. Call me up when you’ve read it and we’ll talk about it.’

“‘I don’t know what any of that means.’ He raised his head and looked at me. Gave me the full force of his gaze. … There is no barrier between him and the world. Not a membrane to separate him from all that burgeoning wonder, all the glorious and inglorious knowledge of our being.

“‘I will love you till I die,’ I said. ‘I love you more than anyone. You are the dearest thing on earth to me.’”

Rhoda’s musings on the quicksilver nature of youth are touching, but what makes “A Wedding in Jackson” so memorable has less to do with her rhapsodizing than with the reassurance she gives us that even the most emotionally worn, self-involved women may find joy and renewal in the endless chain of maternal love. It is an emphatically feminist story in the most intimate, uplifting sense.

These stories cover a broad spectrum of tone, from coy to forlorn. In “The Uninsured,” Rhoda becomes a garrulous pen pal to Blue Cross, Blue Shield. In “Joyce,” while taking an inspiring class on Ulysses, she has a voracious, loveless affair with a Vietnam vet who is searching in vain to give meaning to his war memories; though this tale is weaker than others here, Gilchrist’s portrayal of Rhoda as a postmodern Penelope is daring.

The Age of Miracles is not a collection in which every story sings, and one of its flaws is that Rhoda’s shadow envelops nearly every other character. Three stories told from the perspective of children grown wise before their time—“Among the Mourners,” “The Stucco House” and “The Blue House”—are engaging, but in the context of Rhoda’s recurring narrative, they are little more than genteel interludes. Like an overblown rose, Rhoda fills the book with a fragrance both heady and garish (and sometimes cloying, as in “Love of My Life,” a memoir of an affair that, for all its ardent extremes, seems unexceptional and too sentimentally rendered).

Not that she runs away with the show entirely. In two other wonderful stories, marrying fable and farce, Gilchrist lampoons the muddled morality of our times.

In “Madison at 69th, a Fable,” three grown children kidnap their mother and hold her hostage to prevent her from getting a face lift—a wholly original comedy that enfolds a dark tangle of fears and betrayed obligations.

The conflict between Edwina Standfield’s desperation to buy back youth and her children’s imperialist arrogance is rife with irony.

“I am fifty-nine years old,” Edwina pleads. “I don’t have long enough to live to go saving myself a little pain and discomfort. I want to have this done. I’m having this cone.”

“It’s a new world,” her son says later. “People don’t get what they think they ought to have. They have to think up new things to want.”

How the tables have turned: the older generation pleading for novelty, the younger generation scorning change.

“The Divorce” is similarly rich. In this computer-age fairy tale, a jilted husband buries his sorrow by opening an espresso cafe in a dull Midwestern town, an asthmatic little girl becomes a gifted trumpeter and an upright citizen puts herself in contempt of court by calling a spade a spade. And love, however pragmatically, conquers all.

If there is a unifying theme in this collection, it lies in the outlook of the various protagonists, nearly all of them past or yet to enter what we call the prime of life. In those before-and-after years—one an age of yearning, the other of reckoning—we take the least for granted and so, Gilchrist suggests, are most capable of recognizing miracles. We do not yet know the random cruelty of love, or we know it all too well.

“I’m a Celt,” says Rhoda. “I pile up stones and keep a loaded pistol in my underwear drawer. My ancestors painted themselves blue and impaled each other on oak staves. I can’t stand tyranny. From the world outside or the tyranny of the heart.”

Like Rhoda, Ellen Gilchrist is an Attila of a romantic who, as a Southerner, a woman and a poet, chooses her weapons from a well-stocked arsenal. In The Age of Miracles she continues the fight with shrewd, unstinting passion.

Bharat Tandon (review date 20 October 1995)

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SOURCE: “Dressed for Success in the South,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4829, p. 23.

[In the following review, Tandon argues that there are profound moments in Gilchrist's The Age of Miracles, but that it is not her best work.]

Ellen Gilchrist, as readers of her stories will have noticed, has a gift for moving meticulously around the textures and ramifications of an event; and while her novels are always entertaining, this is a gift which lends itself more naturally to the short story, a form where epiphany is distilled and compressed. The Age of Miracles is a welcome return to Gilchrist’s Southern landscapes and charmingly fallible characters.

Fables depend on a sense of ritual and expectation, and although only “Madison at 69th” openly calls itself “A Fable”, Gilchrist’s talent for noticing the shapes of habit in everyday life runs deep. In “Statue of Aphrodite”, the disappointment of Rhoda Manning, the author’s recurring heroine, is articulated through her clothes. She sets off to meet an unknown admirer with “a sophisticated black three-piece evening suite … and an even more sophisticated beige Donna Karan to wear on the plane”, and a bathetic weight sounds in the description of the Laura Ashley dress he sends her:

Its full skirt covered up the only thin part of my body. Its coy little neckline made my strong shoulders and arms look absurd. … I managed to look like a tennis player masquerading as a shepherdess.

Rhoda is one of a cast of characters who crop up repeatedly in Gilchrist’s work, and though she is someone we relish meeting again, her very ubiquity can be self-defeating, in that a few too many of the other characters and narrators share her taste for loping, paratactic sentences and worldly pronouncements: “Women and their desire to please wealthy, self-made men. Think about that sometime if you get stuck in traffic in the rain.” In general, however, the way in which stories and characters intertwine with and comment on each other is one of Gilchrist’s signal strengths.

On the simplest level, the overlaps deepen the imaginative reality of her fictional terrain, that Arkansas/Mississippi/Louisiana area which is becoming her answer to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. They also enable Gilchrist to display her tonal skill; like musical variations, individual stories can provide different perspectives on the same events. For example, a poet’s suicide can precipitate two stories as different as the bitter-sweet “Raintree Street Bar and Washerteria” [sic] and the comically petulant “Among the Mourners”. Where the former traces the impact of the suicide on New Orleans bohemia, the latter is easily the funniest story in the collection, as a female Holden Caulfield moans about her parents and the poet’s funeral:

Here’s what they do that drives me crazy. They preach all the time about reason. Dharma, my dad calls it. He is so big on dharma. Then the first something happens they start acting like these big Christians or something and having all these rituals.

The Age of Miracles is not Gilchrist’s best book; it doesn’t have the consistency of a work like Drunk with Love. However, there are in this new collection moments of more profound and graceful achievement than she has shown before. Most notable in this regard is the story which contains the book’s title, “Death Comes to a Hero”. In a tale which itself takes its cue from “A Painful Case” in Dubliners, a one-legged Joyce scholar, Morais Wheeler, discovers a soulmate in his aerobics class, only to find that the heart she has stirred is giving up on him. With its turns of phrase (“He wrapped a smile around her embarrassment”) and its control of tone, this story of love among the Stairmasters is Gilchrist at her most effective.

Although the book has its fair share of dramatic climaxes, such as Wheeler’s heart-attack or the bomb that kills Rhoda’s acquaintance in “Paris”, Gilchrist is less interested in sweeping revelations than were earlier writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner. In her world, people’s plans tend to go awry less obviously, if no less painfully, collapsing in slow motion like ice in spring. The “miracles” in this book are quiet surprises, as when in “Madison at 69th”, a woman’s children persuade her that she doesn’t need a facelift—by kidnapping her and slipping her a mickey. Ellen Gilchrist has an ear for the equivocal, as her titles suggest: Drunk with Love,Net of Jewels,Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle. And in her best work, she displays a sensitivity which comprehends its own cost. One view of freedom:

Not a membrane to separate him from all that burgeoning wonder, all the glorious and inglorious knowledge of our being.

measures against another:

They are free, in the deepest and most terrible sense of the word. Cut loose, dismounted, disengaged.

If nothing else, Gilchrist is one of our more intriguing examiners of the pavement on the road to hell.

Tonya Stremlau Johnson (essay date Summer 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7041

SOURCE: “Ellen Gilchrist's Rhoda: Managing the Fiction,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 4, Summer, 1997, pp. 87-96.

[In the following essay, Johnson studies Gilchrist's character Rhoda and her desire to seek acceptance from society while at the same time attempting to free herself from its constraints.]

Ellen Gilchrist has said that in writing she has “finally found a socially desirable use for the fact that I talk too much” (Lyons 83). This statement is not only revealing of Gilchrist but also of her white female characters, who want to establish their independence from the social norm while also being accepted within that same society. The image for such characters to maintain is that of “the belle … a beautiful, intelligent, yet modest woman with impeccable morality” (Seidel 13). One of these, Rhoda Manning, the central character in both Gilchrist’s novel Net of Jewels and many of her short stories, likes to see herself in the role of rebel, an independent girl/woman who does what she wants to do, yet she never seems to be able to break the strong ties of family and society which bind her to the past.1 Although she says in Net of Jewels that “I wouldn’t be caught dead being a southern belle” (250), Rhoda is most certainly under the influence of this ideal. Her confusion over her own identity is evident when she tries to separate herself from the southern belle ideal, especially through control of her own body, but instead displays how deeply she has internalized the responses to that image.

Net of Jewels treats this theme particularly effectively because it covers Rhoda’s late adolescence and early adulthood, times when trying to establish identity apart from the family is customary. Rhoda’s life becomes a delicate balance of pushing against the boundaries, but never so hard or so far that she cannot return to the comforting, if restraining, bounds of “good” southern society. She says in Net of Jewels that it is the story of “my setting forth to break the bonds [my father] tied me with” (3), but she does not seem to really want—or to be able—to do so. As long as Rhoda is able to appear to others as a good southern girl/woman, she will be accepted as such, even if the facade is almost completely false.

The process of examining Rhoda’s facades in Net of Jewels is complicated by the fact that Rhoda herself is telling her story. In the very first sentence, in a “preface,” she says, “My name is Rhoda Manning and I am a writer” (3). We see her in many other roles throughout the book, but “writer” is the one persona she wants to identify with; she is a storyteller. As such, she wants to entertain us, to tell a good story—not necessarily a true one. In the first Rhoda Manning short story, “1957, a Romance,” we are told that Rhoda “always believed her own stories as soon as she told them” (82). Various discrepancies among the Rhoda short stories and Net of Jewels raise the question of how much rewriting of her own life Rhoda does, or that Gilchrist has Rhoda do.2 In other words, Rhoda learns to see her life the way she thinks the world wants to see it—much as she tries to alter her body so that it will appear pleasing to society.

All of the Rhoda stories, including Net of Jewels, are told from Rhoda’s point of view, either in first person, as in the novel, or in third person limited. Thus Rhoda’s voice could be telling us tall tales. In an interview Gilchrist explained that she knew more about Rhoda as she wrote more about her, and that some of the past stories “violated my internal sense of Rhoda’s personality” (Smith 46).3 But the same could be said of Rhoda as she tells us stories about herself; her sense of self, of what her story should be, changes over time and with the context of the story.4 Such altering emphasis on Rhoda’s own self-perception could explain why, in parts of her story told in more than one place, one version shows her placing more importance on her appearance than others do.

For Rhoda, physical appearances are extremely important in maintaining the fiction of herself as an accepted member of southern society and her family, for she has to look the part. The role is assigned by “an entire society that boasts of its women as the most splendid examples of feminine pulchritude … [and which] produces a woman whose appearance is emphasized from babyhood” (Seidel xv). Obsession with appearance is the most visible way Rhoda shows that she has been successfully socialized. She willingly pursues the perfect body to the point of endangering her own health, even while she tries to rebel against the moral codes which are also part of her “proper” social position.

For Rhoda, dieting and weight loss are the means to achieving this perfect end. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar explain the phenomenon of women in patriarchal societies harming themselves through diet:

Learning to become a beautiful object, this girl learns anxiety about—perhaps even loathing of—her own flesh. Peering obsessively into the real as well as metaphoric looking glasses that surround her, she desires literally to “reduce” her own body. In the nineteenth century … this desire led to tight-lacing and vinegar-drinking. In our own era it has spawned innumerable diets and “controlled” fasts.


Rhoda’s own pursuit of the perfect figure is not entirely harmful since it does encourage her (at times) to swim, but by and large she uses unhealthful means, such as crash diets, drugs and even abortion, to try to maintain the ideal. She also abuses alcohol as an escape from her problems, which include disappointment with her body.

Already a dedicated dieter by the time she reaches the period of her life depicted in Net of Jewels, she has been going on diets at least since she was in third grade. At that age Rhoda was being taught not just to be thin, but that somehow ideal appearance was linked to social success which included moral behavior. Rhoda does perform one socially sacrificial action; she volunteers to be partners with Billy Monday, the class “geek.” When she tells her mother this, “she was so proud of me she made me some cookies even though I was supposed to be on a diet” (“Victory over Japan” 7). Here Rhoda is learning that one social good deed can cancel another social sin, a lesson she later applies in the reverse by keeping the diets while breaking the moral code. Rhoda overhears her mother telling the Episcopal minister, “I think it helped a lot to get her to lose weight. It was smart of you to see that was the problem” (“Victory over Japan” 8). The message Rhoda receives about physical attractiveness as a moral obligation is reinforced by learning that the minister proposed her diet in the first place.

Such social conditioning leads Rhoda to use her weight as a primary means of identifying herself. In 1944, the year Rhoda is ten, she decides to bury a time capsule, and in the note she includes to introduce herself she begins: “My name is Rhoda Katherine Manning. I weigh 82” (“Time Capsule” 18). She thinks that a stranger would be more interested in her weight than in anything else about her and that she must prove herself acceptable in that way for the reader of her message to want to read the rest.

On occasion Rhoda is led to exercise to keep her body from getting fat. As a child, however, she is also told that exercise can make her unattractive. When she is ten, spending the summer with relatives in the Mississippi Delta, as the only girl she is lonely and wants to play with the five boys. But they will not let her train with them in track because “this is only for boys” (“Revenge” 112). Her grandmother reinforces this message when, in trying to make Rhoda feel better about being left out, tells her, “Even if they let you play with them all it would do is make you a lot of ugly muscles” (119). For women in this society, a good figure has nothing to do with physical well-being and can actually be contrary to it.

By the time Rhoda is a young teenager she has formed a pattern of putting herself on harmful diets in order to turn herself into an object to be looked at. At thirteen, in ninth grade, Rhoda is directing her efforts to make herself look “right” so that she might please men, in this case a specific male, Bob Rosen, a college freshman. She would “do everything he directed her to do. So he would love her” (“Expansion” 38). While Bob does try to teach Rhoda to better herself by reading, writing and learning to appreciate music, he also directs her to become a cheerleader and tells her exactly how to dress. He makes seeing her on one of his visits home dependent on her meeting his dictates for her appearance: “If you will be waiting for me wearing a black sweater and skirt and brown shoes and get that hair cut into a pageboy I’ll be over about 6:30” (45). Though he does not tell Rhoda that she should also be thin, she can hardly miss the message that she must look perfect if she wants attention from him. Bob does perhaps want her to look thin, since he requests black, traditionally a color that is supposed to make the wearer appear thinner. Rhoda begins to diet on Monday, the day she learns Bob is coming. She resolves, “I am not eating a bite until Friday. I will eat one egg a day until he gets here. I’ll be so beautiful. … I love him so much I could die” (48). If Rhoda were to keep up such behavior she literally could die from trying to make Bob love her.

Even though this diet lasts less than a week, it does adversely affect Rhoda’s health. Her mother tells her on Thursday, “You look terrible, Rhoda. Your cheeks are gaunt and you aren’t sleeping well. I heard you last night” (48). But Rhoda does not believe that crash dieting is making her look worse. Instead, she perceives the diet positively: “Already she could feel her rib cage coming out. She would be so beautiful. So thin. Surely he would love her” (49). In an incredible, but socially conditioned, twist of logic, Rhoda seems to think that looking as much like a skeleton as possible will make her sexually desirable.

Rhoda’s dieting behavior has many similarities to anorexia nervosa, defined as:

an eating disorder … characterized by fear of becoming obese, disturbed body image, inability to maintain body weight within normal range (exemplified by significant weight loss), and, to females, amenorrhea [suppression of menstruation].

(“Anorexia” 148)

Except for the final symptom, amenorrhea, Rhoda fits the description. The third time she is pregnant she knows it because, she says, “I was late exactly three times in my life. Once when I had pneumonia and twice when I was pregnant” (Net of Jewels 315). Although Rhoda’s dieting behavior brings her dangerously close to anorexia, she never appears to cross the line to the extreme.

When Rhoda is fourteen and a sophomore in high school, she begins smoking, another risky behavior which she sees as rebellion against the social order her parents represent. In fact, however, the smoking is connected with her desire to maintain the thin appearance that same society prescribes for her. Rhoda’s parents, Dudley and Ariane, recognize the rebellion in the smoking, partly because it makes Rhoda less attractive and less able to fit the image of the perfect southern woman. As her father points out, it makes her smell bad. In an effort to encourage her to quit smoking, Dudley decides to take Rhoda on a trip when she finishes the school year. As usual, Rhoda is on a diet, this time what she calls “a black coffee diet” (“Music” 20), relying on two drugs at the same time, nicotine and caffeine, to suppress her appetite.

Rhoda depends on cigarettes to help herself stay on the diet, as she finds out when her father takes her away to the hills of Kentucky, “God’s country … [where] people took things like children smoking cigarettes seriously” (28). Rhoda is so addicted to smoking that she starts trying into find ways to replace her cigarettes as soon as her father takes away the ones she brought with her. She succeeds by telling a clerk that she is buying them for her father. While in the store, “Rhoda stared at the cookie jars, wanting to stick her hand down inside and take out great fistfuls of Lorna Doones and Oreos. She fought off her hunger and raised her eyes to the display of chewing tobacco and cigarettes” (30). When Rhoda goes to the restroom to sneak a cigarette, after inhaling she feels “dizzy and full” (31); her diet drug is working. She is found out, however, and is left for a while with no access to her appetite suppressant.

Not coincidentally, at this point Rhoda goes off her diet in a big way. When she and her father return to the car, Rhoda “tore open the lunch and began to devour it, tearing the chicken off the bones with her teeth, swallowing great hunks without even bothering to chew them” (33) and, later that evening, “ate two pieces of pie, covering it with thick whipped cream” (35). She finds that she is unable to follow the diet she has set without something to convince her body that it does not need food. But even more disturbing is that Rhoda does not seem to understand the relationship between her dieting and her smoking. The very action of smoking, through which Rhoda thinks she is asserting her independence, is instead merely helping to confirm her position as an object within the social bounds.

The next step for Rhoda to take in her quest for weight loss is the use of more powerful drugs, and she takes it in Net of Jewels. When, in the novel, we initially see her she seems to have a healthier body image than the younger Rhoda portrayed through the various short stories. She has used her freshman year at Vanderbilt to explore and assert her own identity, and she has had time away from the repressive influence of her family for most of a year. She is unconcerned enough about her appearance to let her roommate cut her hair and is successfully competing on the swim team (a sport where some body fat helps for buoyancy). She and her roommate binge periodically at the Waffle House by deciding that they will “go and give a pint of blood and will come out even” (9), but at this point Rhoda is eating regularly and exercising.

Trouble starts, however, when Rhoda returns to the new home in Alabama where her parents have moved from Kentucky while she was away at school. The first words her mother says to her are, “My goodness, honey … you’ve gained so much weight” (21). Rhoda at first resists her mother’s suggestion that she take her to the doctor for some weight loss pills, but she eventually gives in. The doctor prescribes “pink pills,” Dexedrine, an addictive stimulant. All Rhoda knows is that after having her prescription filled and taking the first dose of twelve milligrams she is soon “in a marvelous mood” (24). That very day Rhoda tells us, “I was feeling thin already. This was a great diet. You didn’t even get hungry. This was perfect” (24). She finds the stronger drug more efficient than nicotine for controlling her appetite, and the diet requires none of the will power of her old self-imposed crash diets.

The pills are not, however, as benign as they at first seem. When Rhoda returns from swimming one day, her mother reminds her that “Doctor Freer said you had to be sure and eat thirty minutes after you take this pill. You have to eat on time. His said it was very important” (52). Rhoda ignores the doctor’s warning that the drug is strong and dangerous if not tempered by the presence of food in the stomach.

The Dexedrine may also be in part responsible for a tragic accident in which Rhoda is involved that same summer. Partly for weight control, Rhoda had continued her swimming. At the pool she meets an older woman, Patricia Morgan, and they become friends. She accepts a dinner invitation from Patricia, and muses that “I was half thinking of giving up swimming entirely. I had always done it to keep my body thin, but now I didn’t need it anymore” (58). Still on Dexedrine at the time of the dinner, Rhoda does not seem to sense any danger in complete weight control through artificial means.

For dinner, the Morgans serve “asparagus casserole and roast beef and hot homemade bread. There was wine, and later salad.” Rhoda, however, “picked at the food … [and] drank more wine” (60). After dinner, there is “the dessert and dessert wine and coffee and brandy.” Rhoda drank the sweet white wine and Dr. Morgan got up and filled my glass. Then I drank brandy and he refilled that” (61). During the evening Rhoda consumes a good amount of alcohol, but eats very little, apparently unaware of the danger of combining alcohol and Dexedrine.

They are a combination that could have killed Rhoda, but instead kill Clay, Patricia’s college-student son. During dinner, Rhoda had volunteered to drive Clay into town so that he could meet some other young people. With Rhoda behind the wheel, “driving sixty miles an hour, then sixty-five, as fast as [she] could drive and make the curves” (61), the car spins out of control and is hit by another car. Rhoda survives, but Clay does not. Rhoda’s parents assure her that the accident was not her fault, but the evidence makes it clear that she was driving impaired.

It could just as easily have been Rhoda killed in that car accident instead of Clay; Rhoda would then literally have killed herself in the pursuit of a perfect body. She does finally make the connection that her use of alcohol contributed to the accident, but it does not seem to occur to her that the Dexedrine had anything to do with it. At this point, alcohol has not yet been used to mask her insecurities about her body and Rhoda can perhaps admit to its effects because she is not yet addicted. But since she already “needs” Dexedrine to feel normal she cannot risk viewing the drug in anything but a positive way.

Addicted to the pills by summer’s end, she has lost more weight but is convinced she needs to lose still more. She does not listen to those who, like her friend Charles Williams, urge her to recognize that she has a dangerous, distorted view of what her body should look like. She is again exhibiting symptoms of anorexia. Charles tells her, “You are getting so thin. You’re almost too thin, Dee [his nickname for her]. Maybe you should go off your diet” (40). When the doctor takes her off Dexedrine, presumably because he feels she has lost enough weight, she searches for another way to obtain the drug, but tells us “it would be almost a year before I found another source” (73). She does not even seem aware of her dangerous course.

Rhoda heads off to her new college, the University of Alabama, with her old desire to stay thin but without her recent crutch of drugs. She tells her new friend May Garth Sheffield about the wonderful pills and the twenty pounds they helped her lose that summer, and that “I wanted to lose some more but they wouldn’t let me. I never eat now. I starve all the time” (82). Rhoda is back to her old dieting habits.

Rhoda admires her new friend May Garth for her willingness to take risks in order to lose weight. May Garth’s particular method is “my iodine. I take it every eight hours. Two drops to a glass of milk. It makes you lose weight” (81). Even Rhoda, as enamored as she is with the idea of thinness, has “a vision of poison iodine dripping into milk. Huge globules of iodine falling, falling though the white silky milk” (81–82). She is too afraid to try this method, but eagerly watches May Garth risk her life in the pursuit of the perfect body. This incident, if nothing else, must confirm that she is not overdoing her own weight loss since the dangers to which she has exposed herself pale by comparison. She has never ingested anything with a poison warning on it.

All the attention on dieting and weight loss must be seen in the context of southern eating habits and social life. Southern food is notoriously fattening, and social life (for adults) includes consuming quantities of alcohol, also high in calories. Rhoda’s parents turn their new home in Dunlieth, Alabama, into a perpetual party with friends and their innumerable relatives coming by daily to “eat and play bridge … and [drink] whiskey sours and scotch mists and gin and tonics” (30). Rhoda annoys her parents by avoiding these parties when she is at home, but when she leaves for school, must still contend with the highly caloric southern food and the parties that go with campus and sorority life. Rhoda faces a real dilemma: if she wants to be a social success, she must participate in gatherings where she will be expected to consume the calories she tries so hard to avoid in order to be thin enough to be a social success.

While attending summer school Rhoda’s social activity leads her to a whole new world of concern for her figure. She elopes with Malcolm Martin, a fraternity brother of Charles Williams, because they had been having sex for a while and were tired of having to sneak around. Rhoda is enchanted with sex; she says that “the more we did it, the more I wanted to do it and the more he wanted to do it. All we wanted to do was do it. It was what we had in common and it was plenty” (184). In sex Rhoda has discovered her body as a source of pleasure rather than something to torture into shape, but with her relative ignorance about and inconsistent use of birth control she soon finds herself pregnant. The events of this first pregnancy are not discussed in Net of Jewels, which moves directly from conception to the birth of her son. They are, however, described in “Adoration.”5

This first pregnancy is difficult. Rhoda’s real problems with the pregnancy, however, start after delivery when Malcolm is not as attentive as she thinks he should be. At the hospital, “he would only stay a little while and he wouldn’t touch the baby” (Net 216), and Rhoda immediately attributes his behavior to her physical condition. She cannot believe that the baby could be the problem because her husband would hardly be turned off by his namesake. She tells us that “every night after he kissed me gingerly on the cheek and left the room and went away I would turn over into the pillow and cry for a long time. My stomach hurt at night and I was still fat and my husband didn’t even want to kiss me (Net 217; emphasis added). She does not consider that Malcolm might be afraid he would hurt her, or that he might be having difficulty thinking of her as both a mother and an object for sexual affection, or even that he might be so attracted to her that he must keep his distance while she heals. Whatever Malcolm’s actual feelings, Rhoda interprets his actions as showing that he no longer feels passion for her because her body is not yet back to its pre-pregnancy shape.

After her hospital stay, she decides that Malcolm’s distant behavior has to do with the fact that his body still looks good. “His body was perfect. His body looked like a Greek god. He wasn’t lying in a bed with his stomach hurting all night every night and fat all over the sides of his waist” (218). Rhoda is concerned that Malcolm goes out while she has to stay home in bed and concludes that it is no wonder such a fine physical specimen did not want to stay with her. She says, “I decided I was the ugliest person in this world. Fat all over the sides of my waist and milk dripping out of my nipples” (Net 219). She wants to go to the beauty parlor so that she can mask what she has been conditioned by her society to see as ugly. Femininity in this social context has nothing or very little to do with the functions women’s bodies are actually built for. Malcolm never directly says anything to lead Rhoda to conclude that his behavior is based on changes in her body, but she paranoidly lets herself suspect that he is really “out there with girls talking to them. Girls in bathing suits without any fat on their bodies” (221) instead of out playing golf with his father. Actually, Malcolm acts just about the same towards Rhoda after her pregnancy as he always has, but she is so persistent in believing that how she looks determines the love she will receive that as soon as she has a reason to think her body is the problem she blames it.

Rhoda decides she cannot allow her body to get pregnant-fat again and vows to be extra careful to use birth control whenever she has sex and to have an abortion (illegal at that time) if that fails. Rhoda conceives again, however, only about a month later when she and Malcolm get drunk enough to forget that they are mad at each other. Rhoda seems to lose her resolve when she persuades Malcolm to tell her, “Of course I love you” (228), during their lovemaking. Rhoda uses her body to obtain affection from her husband, and she does not go through with her earlier threats to abort.

Details surrounding Rhoda’s pregnancy with her second son, Jimmy, differ in Net of Jewels and “Adoration,” but they are recognizably the same pregnancy, which is described as easier this time around. In “Adoration”we learn that “Rhoda lived on diet pills and potato chips and gin. She lived on vegetable soup and cornbread and cokes and gin” (62), hardly a diet a doctor would suggest for ensuring a healthy mother and baby. The diet is a strange combination: the vegetable soup and cornbread sound like foods an expectant mother should eat, and are perhaps the foods her doctors suggested, though even these healthy foods do not make a balanced diet. Potato chips and coke might be relatively harmless to the baby but will make Rhoda gain the weight she so dreads. The focus of Rhoda’s diet, though, seems to be gin since it is the one component she mentions twice, and she probably hopes the diet pills will keep her from gaining extra weight during the pregnancy. It is unlikely a doctor would prescribe diet pills to a pregnant woman, so Rhoda must somehow be obtaining the drug illegally. If she is aware of the dangers of combining Dexedrine and alcohol, she may subconsciously be trying to kill the baby. It is more likely, however, that she is as ignorant of what her diet might be doing to her baby as she has shown she is about birth control. Thanks perhaps to regular visits to her doctor (because he is a good-looking man), all turns out well except that she goes into premature labor and has another caesarean delivery.

Rhoda’s description of the delivery in Net of Jewels makes it clear that the easier pregnancy has not made her forget the problems she had with her body after the first one:

I looked down beside the operating table at the huge pads soaked with my blood and all I thought about was how much weight it would make me lose. I won’t even be fat this time, I remember thinking. How great, I get the baby out of me and get my figure back at the same time. Sew me up tight, I kept muttering to the doctors. Make my stomach flat.


Rhoda is so caught up in the need to have a perfect body to keep her husband’s attention that she does not even give a thought to the baby. She treats the delivery more like a plastic surgery to remove a large lump of fat than giving birth to her second child.

Her scheme to come out of the pregnancy with a perfect body for Malcolm to love fails. He is as distant the second time around. “You didn’t even bring me flowers,” Rhoda says. “Why didn’t you bring me flowers?” (229). Malcolm tries to explain, “I would have brought you flowers, Rhoda, but I barely got here. I was taking a test in calculus when they found me. I had to go home and shave. I hope to God I passed it” (229). By going home to shave before coming to the hospital, Malcolm’s concern for his own appearance emphasizes to Rhoda that she is not his first priority. In addition, his worry about his test score reiterates his self-absorption.

Her husband’s lack of affection and his statement that the baby “looks like a monkey,” reaffirm Rhoda’s determination to have an abortion if she ever finds herself pregnant again. She determines also to leave Malcolm and has her father’s lawyer arrange a divorce and custody of the children for her. She gets as far as signing the papers, but the couple is reconciled when Malcolm asks her to move to Alexandria, Louisiana, with him. The move, however, does not heal the marriage.

Rhoda continues to abuse her body with drugs, adding increased intake of alcohol to her dependence on diet pills. She will not admit to being an alcoholic but does consult a psychiatrist, saying, “I do things I don’t want to do when I get drunk” (229). She insists she can quit, that “I’m not an alcoholic. I only drink to have fun” (300). Partying is her excuse to drink, but, in truth, alcohol helps her forget that her husband pays so little attention to her because she must not be beautiful enough for him. Rhoda never stops trying to look good for men and flirts to assure herself that she is still attractive. The futility of her effort to find love and self worth through her physical appearance goes unrecognized.

Drinking and the need for affection lead Rhoda to stray from her marriage. She tells her maid, “Everyone’s in love with me, except for my husband. I think he hates me. He thinks I’m fat. No matter how thin I get” (300). When she does finally sleep with Robert Haverty, she is struggling to give up alcohol and is feeling abandoned by Malcolm. Robert, owner of the local newspaper, is rich and powerful and sleeping with him validates for her that she can still be attractive to a man who has it all. Sex, says Rhoda, “was not half as good as the passion Malcolm and I lavished on each other … but the power of the money Robert had inherited” made up for lack of passion (303).

The affirmation of her desirability leaves Rhoda with another problem: she is pregnant again. Nor does she know whether Robert or Malcolm is the father. This time, rather than struggle through another bout with baby fat, she decides to have an abortion. Both Net of Jewels and the short story, “1957, a Romance,” the story in which Gilchrist introduces Rhoda, relate the story of her abortion.6 The significance of the abortion for Rhoda’s life can hardly be overemphasized since it is the first story Gilchrist writes about her character.

In 1957, abortion is illegal, and Rhoda must find a way around the law. Since she has habitually used her body and her father to get what she wants, she does so again. She uses sex to bribe her gynecologist to give her the name of a doctor who does abortions, then she runs back home and has her father take her to the doctor and pay the bills. The excuse she gives her father is that Malcolm has purposely made her pregnant and that to go through with it so soon after the other two would seriously endanger her health. In her own mind she is convinced that the story is true—she “always believed her own stories as soon as she told them.” In both this story and Net of Jewels, Rhoda repeats her excuses for having the abortion to several people as if trying to convince herself that her fiction is true.

Rhoda says and does things in both the short story and the novel, however, that suggest that the desire to maintain an attractive body is the real if unacknowledged motive behind her abortion. In Net of Jewels, she tries to gloss over her concern with the way she looks, but she cannot completely eliminate the evidence that is much clearer in “1957, a Romance.” In both accounts Rhoda meets Olympic swimmers training at a hotel pool, but only in the short story does she slip off her wedding ring after flirting with one of the men. Perhaps in the telling in Net of Jewels Rhoda (and Gilchrist through Rhoda) is afraid her audience will lose sympathy if she admits she had an abortion out of vanity.

In Net of Jewels Rhoda does not even mention the effect of this pregnancy on her figure to the abortionist doctor, but in the short story Rhoda tells him, “I blow up like a balloon” (91). She certainly has not forgotten what the process of bringing a baby into the world does to her body. The one hint in the novel that Rhoda has had an abortion so that she might maintain an attractive body comes at the very end, when, as in the short story, Rhoda has returned with her father to a family gathering. “I put on my new bathing suit,” she says, “and admired myself in the mirror for a while” (327).

“1957, a Romance” is much more explicit about the post-abortion sense of pleasure Rhoda takes in the way her body looks. In this account, she glances “down every now and then at her flat stomach, running her hand across it.” When she puts on her swimsuit, “it fit better than ever” (95). The story ends:

“I’m beautiful,” she thought, running her hands over her body. “I’m skinny and I’m beautiful and no one is ever going to cut me open. I’m skinny and I’m beautiful and no one can make me do anything.”

She began to laugh. She raised her hand to her lips and great peals of clear abandoned laughter poured out between her fingers, filling the tiny room, laughing back at the wild excited face in the bright mirror.


Rhoda’s sense that she is finally in control is false. Whether or not the choice to have an abortion is a woman’s right, in Rhoda’s case the point is moot. Her decision is firmly anchored in expectations about body image that she thinks her society insists she maintain. If she could, in fact, feel beautiful during and after pregnancy, times when the body simply cannot meet the ideals of slender beauty, then she would indeed have been in control.

In the preface to Net of Jewels, Rhoda explains that she meant the book to be a collection of short stories, but they bled into each other so she turned it into a novel. By “jewels” she most likely is referring to the events in her life, and “net” to the way the various stories come together as a whole. The title is, however, also an appropriate metaphor for her obsession with her appearance since beauty becomes the means by which Rhoda is trapped. Being physically attractive is most desirable, but achieving that goal confines and oppresses as she molds herself to conform to a preconceived image.

Though Gilchrist does not offer much hope that Rhoda will ever free herself from the influence of these social constructs, neither does she unduly punish Rhoda for her failure. Rhoda never obsesses with her weight enough to become a true anorexic, and she seems to suffer no serious physical or mental problems due to her drug and alcohol abuse. Even when she causes an accident, she is not seriously injured. Rhoda must lead a charmed life, or Gilchrist may either identify too closely or may like her too much to make her character suffer the consequences of poor choices.

Gilchrist may also be suggesting, however, that Rhoda should be given credit for at times trying to free herself from the constraints of the society in which she was raised. She does resist some of the shortcomings of those around her, such as prejudice against blacks and homosexuals, but she is careful not to rock the boat too much. Ultimately, though, Rhoda seems unable to refrain from seeking acceptance from the society she tries so often to defy. The approval of men is important to her, and especially that of her father, the most significant representative of the southern patriarchal social system in which she is trapped. Rhoda, always herself, continues to be the rebel who maintains a facade.


  1. Gilchrist published the Rhoda stories as a collection, Rhoda: A Life in Stories, in 1995. This article was written in 1993.

  2. Rhoda is, in effect, turning her life story into a myth which can change to fit the needs of the storytelling situation, not unlike distorted retellings of family stories by characters in other southern fiction, such as the train story in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding and the turning of Amy into a myth after her death in Katherine Anne Porter’s short stories in The Old Order.

  3. Gilchrist also explains some differences between the short stories and the novel as resulting from the differing demands of the novel form. She says that “this is the difference between writing novels and writing short stories; there aren’t any tricks” (Smith 46).

  4. Because of the myth-making quality of the Rhoda stories, it seems quite possible that some Gilchrist stories which bear a remarkable resemblance to the Rhoda stories but which have a protagonist of a different name are actually Rhoda stories. This especially seems to be the case with “Traveler,” one of the stories in the Land of Dreamy Dreams. The story’s main character LeLe lives in Indiana and goes to visit a cousin in the Mississippi Delta, as Rhoda has done. Also like Rhoda, LeLe likes to swim, is continually battling fat, is in love with a Jewish college student named Bob who has thyroid cancer and so on. It seems more than a coincidence that Rhoda has a cousin named LeLe whom we learn about in “Music” in Victory Over Japan, a story in which Rhoda is fourteen, just about the age of the LeLe character in “Traveler.” LeLe is an inveterate liar and has all of Rhoda’s vices, only worse. LeLe is perhaps more the real Rhoda than the Rhoda we actually get to see, because it is one of Rhoda’s characteristics to make herself look as good as possible. I strongly suspect that Rhoda in the Rhoda stories does substantial embellishment to make herself look better.

  5. There are some differences between the novel and the story. In “Adoration,” Rhoda runs off with Malcolm only one week after sleeping with him, but in the novel she waits considerably longer. This change in the novel makes Rhoda look less impulsive and more in control of herself than she usually shows herself to be. There are other differences in details, such as that her doctor is named Freer in the novel and Greer in the story, and her architect friend Charles Williams is an artist friend Daniel in the story. Maybe Rhoda is simply bad at remembering details, but Gilchrist could also be using such differences to remind her audience that Rhoda likes to make stories up.

  6. Rhoda’s abortion story as told in Net of Jewels is in several ways different from that told in “1957, a Romance” other than those discussed in the text. In the short story we are not told that the pregnancy might be the result of an affair or that Rhoda is having problems with alcohol so there is nothing to mask her concern about her appearance as reason for the abortion. Rhoda is portrayed much more sympathetically in the novel. Some little details are different, such as that Rhoda’s mother is named Jeannie in the short story while in Net and every other Rhoda story her name is Ariane.

Works Cited

“Anorexia Nervosa.” International Dictionary of Medicine and Biology. Eds. Sidney I. Landau, et al. 3 vols. New York: John Wiley, 1986.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship.” The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1991. 289–300.

Gilchrist, Ellen. “Adoration.” Drunk with Love. Boston: Little, 1986. 57–64.

———. “The Expansion of the Universe.” Drunk with Love. Boston: Little, 1986. 35–56.

———. “Music.” Victory over Japan. Boston: Little, 1984. 17–51.

———. Net of Jewels. Boston: Little, 1992.

———. “1957, a Romance.” In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. Boston: Little, 1981. 81–95.

———. “Revenge.” In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. Boston: Little, 1981. 111–24.

———. “The Time Capsule.” Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle. Boston: Little, 1989. 14–25.

———. “Victory Over Japan.” Victory over Japan. Boston: Little, 1984. 3–16.

Lyons, Gene. “First Person Singular.” Newsweek 18 Feb. 1985: 81+.

Seidel, Kathryn Lee. The Southern Belle in the American Novel. Tampa: UP of Florida, 1985.

Smith, Wendy. “Ellen Gilchrist.” Publisher’s Weekly 1992: 46–47.

Katy Emck (review date 14 November 1997)

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SOURCE: “The Patterns People Make,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4937, November 14, 1997, p. 24.

[In the following review, Emck lauds Gilchrist's novel Nora Jane and Company as “a sweet and enlightened novel in celebration of improbable love.”]

Ellen Gilchrist has written a sweet and enlightened novel in celebration of improbable love. Nora Jane and Company traces the randomness of human destiny in a story composed of brightly signposted coincidences, peppered with reflections on DNA and the vastness of the cosmos. “Nineteen ninety-five and we are still in orbit. Keep your fingers crossed”, says the prologue.

But this is a novel that is as interested in patterns as in randomness. Its most delightful characters are four girls between the ages of seven and eleven. Two are twins, born to the same mother but from the sperm of different fathers. Two are adopted girls from different families who act like twins. The improbable girl-pairs finally hook up, because their “mothers” are cousins. There is an inevitability about it all. We have a sense that what is most unlikely is most predestined. For a start, these characters, like other folk from Gilchrist’s books, are destined to have their lives carry on in further novels. The author plots multiple destinies with a deft mix of long-term vision and lightness of touch. And she is not averse to dropping hints about what is to come. Ellen Gilchrist is, above all, a good, old-fashioned story-teller.

The book’s heroine, Nora Jane, has featured in several of Gilchrist’s novels; most recently, The Age of Miracles (1995). She is a San Francisco mother with a beautiful singing voice; ex-counter culture, presently bourgeois, happily married to Freddy, a man fifteen years her senior, who delivered her, in an emergency, of babies he wasn’t sure were his own. The book opens with the couple contentedly making love in the afternoon, only for Nora Jane to leap out of bed on a freak intuition and rescue a small boy from drowning in their swimming-pool. It transpires that the child is the son of her former boyfriend Sandy, who is also father to one of Nora Jane’s twins. She and Freddy hurriedly move house to avoid a confrontation, and that is the last we hear of Sandy; for the duration of this novel, at least.

Gilchrist’s habit of picking up characters and then dropping them (with the intention, presumably, of returning to them several novels later) makes Nora Jane and Company rather episodic. The murder of a feminist author by Muslim fundamentalists is scarcely integrated into the larger pattern of the novel, and seems only to act as fodder for the characters’ musings on destiny and danger. But there are compensations for the loose weave of Gilchrist’s books, not least the fact that her characters are so articulate, thoughtful and witty, with a peculiarly West Coast lightness and sense of quest about them. When Nora Jane decides to take the university degree she never got a chance to take before, her husband and Nieman, her husband’s best friend, sign up too, so as to keep her company.

Nieman, chief film critic of the Bay area, gives up an illustrious career in order to catch up with the latest scientific thought. In doing so, the confirmed bachelor meets his future wife, a lecturer in biochemistry. With Californian know-how, they check in for an AIDS test on the day they meet, so they can sleep together that night. The novel ends in true comedic style with a wedding and intimations of magical providence.

Finally, however, it is Gilchrist’s children who steal the show. They are bright as buttons and provide the measure of the adults’ own capacities for the life fully lived. “The continents ride on the seas like patches of weeds in a marsh. Fortunately for us it all moves so slowly that we’ll be dead before it changes enough to matter”, says one of Nora Jane’s twins with wide-eyed wisdom. This is a creature who also says, “I’ve been waiting all my life to be a bridesmaid. I don’t care if it’s bourgeois or not. I think it’s the best.”

Merle Rubin (review date 8 November 1998)

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SOURCE: “Taking Wing,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 8, 1998, p. 10.

[In the following review, Rubin asserts that Gilchrist's fiction has been somewhat inconsistent, but that her short stories seem to be stronger, including those in her collection Flights of Angels.]

Novelist, poet and short-story writer Ellen Gilchrist made an impressive literary debut in 1981 with her book of short stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. Her 1984 collection, Victory over Japan, won that year’s National Book Award for fiction. Since then, more than a dozen books—story collections, novels, autobiographical nonfiction—have appeared: a mixed bag, in which can be found much that is poignant, funny, charming, wry, moving, even wise, but also much that is coy, preachy, self-satisfied, well-nigh insufferable.

By and large, it seems fair to say that Gilchrist’s short fiction has been stronger than her novels. And, indeed, her new collection, Flights of Angels, contains many stories that well display her talents. Most of these 18 stories are set in the author’s native South: Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina or the little town of Fayetteville, Ark., although one takes place in Los Angeles.

Some stories are linked by a common narrator. In “Miss Crystal Confronts the Past” and “A Sordid Tale, or, Traceleen Continues Talking,” our cicerone, Traceleen, is the longtime housekeeper and confidante of Crystal, a middle-aged woman who’s managed to break away from her old-style, male chauvinist upbringing but who can never entirely evade the pull of family ties.

Three other stories, “The Triumph of Reason,” “Have a Wonderful Nice Walk” and “Witness to the Crucifixion,” are narrated by Aurora Harris, a vivacious, precocious 16-year-old from Fayetteville who faces all kinds of problems, including an unplanned pregnancy, a feckless French boyfriend and a little sister, Jocelyn, who gets caught up in born-again Christianity. Gilchrist’s candid treatment of her heroine’s dilemma provides an interesting and refreshing contrast to the way that television routinely ducks the issue these days (try to remember the last time any character on a soap or sitcom actually had an abortion rather than a convenient miscarriage).

Indeed, Gilchrist is not one to shy away from social questions. In “Ocean Springs,” an ultraliberal former college president fights to get psychiatric help for the man who raped her; while in “Mississippi,” a naive young white woman’s hatred of racism combines with her family’s tradition of using firearms to settle scores.

Whether her subject is charmingly playful, like the eccentric Los Angeles medical clinic that gives aid and comfort to hypochondriacs in “Phyladda, or the Mind/Body Problem,” or seriously scary, like “The Southwest Experimental Fast Oxide Reactor” that threatens a small community with nuclear contaminants, Gilchrist brings to each story an engaging sense of compassion and a saving sense of humor. While some of the stories may seem a little too pat and some of the narrators a little too pleased with themselves, Flights of Angels is on the whole a satisfying collection.

Margaret Donovan Bauer (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: “Tradition and an Individual Talent,” in her The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist, University Press of Florida, 1999, pp. 1-22.

[In the following essay, Bauer analyzes the development of Gilchrist's story cycle and her relationship to the short-story tradition.]

No poet, no artist of any art has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.

T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”

For books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately. And I must also consider her—this unknown woman [writer]—as the descendant of all those other women whose circumstances I have been glancing at and see what she inherits of their characteristics and restrictions.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

I first encountered the fiction of Ellen Gilchrist by way of a short story entitled “Revenge,” in her collection In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, about a little girl who successfully pole-vaults, despite her brother’s insistence that such is not an activity for girls. After reading the story’s last line, “Sometimes I think whatever has happened since has been of no real interest to me” (In the Land of Dreamy Dreams 124; hereafter cited as LDD), I was overwhelmed by a sense of triumph, of empowerment. If it had been in vogue at the time, I would have shouted aloud, “You go, girl,” to the child protagonist. But it was only 1986 or so, and I, significantly, had no such phrase of approval and affirmation at the tip of my tongue for the actions of women. Even had I one, I would later realize, it would have been misdirected, for after a subsequent reading of “Revenge” some years later, I would recognize that the story is not, after all, triumphant—at least not for the protagonist, the little girl named Rhoda, who would reappear, in various stages of her life, throughout Gilchrist’s canon. Rhoda is suggesting in this line that an accomplishment that occurred when she was ten years old seems to remain the highlight of her life. “Revenge” is, however, an example of the writer’s accomplishments: her depiction of the limitations upon girls and women who grew up during and following World War II and the consequences, particularly to strong girls and women, of those limitations.

In the almost twenty years since the University of Arkansas Press published Ellen Gilchrist’s first book of fiction, a collection of short stories entitled In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981), which includes the short story “Revenge,” Gilchrist has produced seven additional volumes of short fiction and six novels. Her canon also includes two collections of poetry, both of which appeared before In the Land of Dreamy Dreams won her instant attention; a collection of her journal entries and National Public Radio broadcasts; and poems and essays published in a number of different popular and literary magazines. Although no one can foresee the future of an author’s critical reputation, my study of Ellen Gilchrist’s fiction leads me to believe that she will emerge as a major figure in contemporary southern literature.


In addition to widespread praise, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams won its creator a contract with Little, Brown and Company to publish a novel and a second collection of stories. In his review of In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, novelist Mark Childress remarks that Gilchrist’s stories “breathe new life into the idea of a short-story collection” (60). I agree and would credit the intratextual nature of her work for much of its appeal. I use the term intratextual here as it is used by Thaïs Morgan to refer to the relationships “among earlier and later texts by the same author” (241). The interrelatedness of the individual works within Gilchrist’s canon makes it particularly interesting, unique, and worthy of critical analysis. Her narrative technique is not, of course, innovative only because her stories and novels are interrelated; writers have been writing interrelated stories for some time. Indeed, all four of the writers whose works are read intertextually with Gilchrist’s in the following four chapters—Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, William Faulkner, and Kate Chopin—have written interrelated stories or novels. Gilchrist’s point of uniqueness is that all of her work is interrelated to the extent that her whole body of work—that which she has already published and probably that which she will publish—is part of an organic story cycle, a story cycle that continues to evolve as each new book appears, comparable to the roman-fleuve. It is a story cycle in the full sense of the word: there are no definite endings to the individual books and, distinguishing her work from the roman-fleuve, there is no clear beginning to the cycle. For the most part, there is no order in which Gilchrist’s books should be read, a characteristic of her canon that reflects the chaotic contemporary world in which the author sets her fiction (with the single exception of her historical novel Anabasis, set in ancient Greece).

Childress’s praise for Gilchrist’s first book of fiction was to be echoed by reviewers of her later collections of short stories who argue that Gilchrist is at her best with the short story. A more specific point of praise for this first volume of stories is directed toward Gilchrist’s criticism of southern aristocracy and the caste system still operating within the contemporary South. Reviewers of The Annunciation (1983) also appreciate the focus on these subjects in Gilchrist’s first novel. Fiction writer Rosellen Brown, for example, remarks that “Gilchrist describes again, effectively, the codes of the class system, and of the religious system as it is distorted by privilege” (53).

The overall critical reception of The Annunciation was mixed, however. A few reviewers speculate that the novel might not suit Gilchrist’s talents as well as the short story does, an opinion which would seem to be reinforced by the resounding success of Victory over Japan, Gilchrist’s second collection of short stories (1984), and which would then be repeated after the publication of her second novel. As is discussed in chapter 5 in relation to this second novel, The Anna Papers (1988), the negative reviews reveal more about reader response to strong women characters who are satisfied, even happy with themselves—or who ultimately achieve self-satisfaction: readers seem disturbed by such positive self-images, reflecting the still prevalent attitudes of this country’s Puritan roots.

Gilchrist apparently did not lose heart upon reading the negative comments within the reviews of her first novel, as is indicated in particular by a short story in Victory over Japan, in which she humorously parodies herself, The Annunciation, and the reviewers who criticized her novel (this story, “Looking over Jordan,” is analyzed in chapter 3). Reviewers began to comment upon Gilchrist’s interrelated stories and books with the appearance of this volume. Perhaps one might even argue that the 1984 American Book Award for Fiction granted to Victory over Japan is testimony for the theory that it is what I term the organic nature of Gilchrist’s story cycle that makes her fiction innovative. This characteristic of her fiction may also be largely responsible for its appeal to the reading public, which usually prefers the novel to the short story, and to the literary community, which often seems to value the novel as the superior form of fiction.

Surprisingly, although Gilchrist’s first novel was criticized as inferior to her short stories, at least one reader of Victory over Japan praised the interrelated stories because they give one the sense of reading a novel: at the end of his glowing review of the collection for the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley comments that “because many of the stories are connected in ways both obvious and subtle, you feel as though you are reading a novel; at the end you have that satisfied, contented feeling only a good novel can give” (B10). It is interesting to note that Yardley had ended his earlier critical review of The Annunciation saying that “perhaps, like a number of other gifted writers, Gilchrist is simply more suited to the short story than the novel” (3). Also somewhat ironic in light of the reviews of Gilchrist’s novel the year before, the reviewer for Publishers Weekly notes how the stories of Victory over Japan “feel like sketches for a novel” and wonders if “perhaps Gilchrist needs the space of a novel to develop her characters and our sympathy for them” (rev. of Victory 136). I disagree with the implication that a consequence of the serial nature of Gilchrist’s work is that a reader of a single story will not care about the characters within it. At the same time, I would answer this reviewer by pointing out that Gilchrist is taking even more space than that of a novel to develop her plot lines. In spite of the point of contrast noted earlier (the absence of any definite beginning to the story cycle), her organic story cycle is something like a roman-fleuve, the appeal of which Lynette Felber relates to its resemblance to the soap opera: “Much of its popularity is based upon its creation of an extended relationship between readers and characters; our familiarity with these seemingly real friends compels us to ‘tune in’ week after week or year after year to see what becomes of them” (4). Also comparable to the roman-fleuve, many different plot lines and characters are found in each book Gilchrist writes, some of which are returned to in later books, while others are dropped.

While the reviews of Gilchrist’s first two story collections are overwhelmingly positive, the reviews of her third collection, Drunk with Love (1986), are mixed. Whereas reviewers enjoyed the stories about recurring characters in Gilchrist’s body of work thus far, they are discomforted by some of the other stories—in particular, those that deal with race issues. I respond to the misgivings about these stories in chapter 3. For my purposes in this introduction to Gilchrist’s fiction, it is interesting to note that the stories in Drunk with Love that most clearly continue her evolving story cycle are the reviewers’ favorites, again supporting my theory about the appeal of this element of her fiction. Similarly, the few reviewers who liked Gilchrist’s journal entries and National Public Radio broadcasts, collected under the title Falling through Space: The Journals of Ellen Gilchrist and published by Little, Brown in 1987, were those who enjoyed finding the geneses of Gilchrist’s stories in the recollections of the author’s own past included in this volume. Most reviewers, however, criticized this autobiographical collection as simplistic and self-aggrandizing; they were apparently discomforted by the author’s positive self-image.

Although at least one reviewer, short story writer David Walton, considers The Anna Papers the “most balanced, emotionally accomplished sequence in all Gilchrist’s fiction” (an opinion with which I wholeheartedly agree) and wishes it had “been another 50 or even 100 pages longer” (6–7), others criticize Gilchrist’s self-aggrandizement in the characterization of the obviously autobiographical Anna and express distaste for Anna’s egotism. Whereas reviewers of the earlier works did not seem to mind the fact that several of Gilchrist’s characters seem to be autobiographical, reviewers of this novel were troubled by the autobiographical element. They argue that Gilchrist does not achieve the objective distance from Anna that she demonstrates in her stories about such other autobiographical characters as Rhoda and Crystal Manning. As is proposed in chapter 5, it seems that they are troubled by the character—and perhaps the writer—liking herself. I, in contrast, find it refreshing for its implicit rejection of self-deprecating humility as a feminine virtue.

After The Anna Papers, Little, Brown next published a fourth collection of Gilchrist’s short fiction entitled Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle (1989). The reviews of this book are overwhelmingly favorable. Reviewers again expressed their approval of Gilchrist’s return to the short story form. Indeed, the stories liked least in this volume, according to the reviews, were the two that provide a new ending to The Annunciation and the long story or novella “Mexico.” Reviewers clearly favored the new stories about Rhoda Manning’s childhood, some commenting that Gilchrist is at her best not only with the short story but also with child and adolescent protagonists. In “Mexico,” Rhoda is a fifty-three-year-old woman whom reviewers did not find as appealing. It is true that Gilchrist is not able to achieve the distance from adult characters living in the present or recent past that she is able to achieve with her child characters growing up in the post-World War II South. I suggest later in this chapter, however, that the source of the readers’ preference is their disappointment at finding in such stories as “Mexico” that, in spite of her vivacity and strong will, Rhoda has not overcome the limitations to women’s opportunities in the patriarchal South.

Following Light Can Be Both Wave and Particleis I Cannot Get You Close Enough (1990), a collection of three novellas, in two of which Gilchrist focuses mainly upon a new generation of protagonists. This volume also received praise from reviewers for the depiction of youth and was criticized for the development of the older characters. Here, I would suggest that what may actually trouble readers is the absence of Gilchrist’s usual humor in these novellas, as is suggested in the concluding chapter of this study. The author does not present a very uplifting picture of growing up in the 1990s.

In 1992, Little, Brown published Gilchrist’s “first Rhoda novel,” as her readers tend to call her third novel, Net of Jewels. Readers who have followed Gilchrist’s work faithfully, anxious to receive a new installment of the life of perhaps her most intriguing, definitely her most popular recurring character, appreciate the author’s full development of quite formative years in this character’s life (as is addressed more fully in the forthcoming section on Gilchrist’s evolving prototype). Again, however, some reviewers commented that the author should confine herself to the short story form, and others lamented the character’s lack of development in the course of the novel. As I discuss later, this complaint also seems related to readers’ apparent desire for a more optimistic view of Rhoda’s adult life.

After Net of Jewels, Gilchrist returned to the Hand family’s story in her fourth novel, Starcarbon, a Meditation on Love (1994). At least two reviewers believe that the novel is still autonomous: Victoria Jenkins states early in her review that “previous acquaintance with the Hand family is not a prerequisite for understanding Starcarbon” (5), and the Publishers Weekly reviewer believes that “Gilchrist skillfully makes [the] complicated relationships [between various characters whose histories are found in earlier books] clear even to those who haven’t read her earlier books” (rev. of Starcarbon 74). However, the mixed reception of this novel reflects an issue I address in the next section of this introduction to Gilchrist’s canon: the decreasing autonomy of her individual volumes as her organic story cycle evolves. One can infer from the reviews of Starcarbon that some believe the novel will be particularly enjoyable only to the readers already familiar with Gilchrist’s characters, while other readers may become bogged down by the number of different characters. Both Sarah Ferguson, in the New York Times Book Review, and the reviewer for the Kirkus Review, for example, remark upon the Gilchrist fan’s pleasure in receiving a new installment on the Hand family (rev. of Starcarbon), while Trev Broughton complains in his Times Literary Supplement review about “excess personnel” (21). Returning to the Publishers Weekly review quoted previously, one will find, however, an understanding of Gilchrist’s achievement with her “multi-volume narrative”—that is, what I consider the story cycle made up of her many volumes of fiction (74). This reviewer argues that Gilchrist’s work “offers a tart antidote to the rootlessness of so much American fiction” (74), another way of suggesting that the appeal of her work lies largely in her fiction’s kinship to the roman-fleuve and the soap opera.

I agree with this reason for Gilchrist’s appeal; however, in my assessment of her fiction, Starcarbon marks a negative turning point, for I find that the weaknesses of this novel continue to infect her later books. Victoria Jenkins sums up the first weakness most succinctly when she characterizes Gilchrist as a “fairy godmother” to her characters, “an overly fond deus ex machina who lets her charges teeter on the brink of disaster but can’t bear to see anyone topple. She snatches them back in the nick of time to avert catastrophe. The gun discharges harmlessly, the tornado is selective in its path, children and parents forgive and embrace” (5). Whereas I noted earlier previously that the author’s fondness for her protagonists has a refreshing appeal for me, it has unfortunately gotten out of hand in her recent fiction, beginning with Starcarbon: Gilchrist seems to have become too fond of her characters. She won’t let anything “bad” happen to them; consequently, since bad things happen to likable people in real life, her work has become less credible (as well as less interesting). Indeed, while reading the novel, Trev Broughton, who complained about too many characters, admits to longing for “a bout of bloody feuding to dispose of [the] excess personnel” (21).

Another weakness of this novel, which can also be found in the works to follow, is Gilchrist’s development of the central character, Olivia de Havilland Hand, whose voice simply does not ring true. It becomes evident when reading this book not only that Gilchrist’s strongest medium is the short story but also that her strongest characters are the women she creates of her own generation, whether they be middle-aged women of the 1980s and '90s or young girls growing up in the 1940s and '50s. At the same time, however, the women of Gilchrist’s own generation created for this novel (for example, Olivia’s therapist and professor) and the volumes to follow are not so appealing to this reader. Like Gilchrist’s fondness for her characters, her characters’ fondness for themselves has gotten out of hand. Their sense of self-worth has become increasingly narcissistic, the third weakness of Gilchrist’s recent fiction (i.e., her post-Net of Jewels books). Due to these weaknesses, the consequence of which is that these volumes do not measure up to the quality of Gilchrist’s early fiction, I do not treat them in this study as specifically or fully as I treat the early work.

Also in 1994, the University Press of Mississippi published Gilchrist’s Anabasis, a Journey to the Interior, a historical novel set in ancient Greece. The author explains in a note preceding the beginning of the tale that she had begun making up this story during her childhood. The reviewer of Anabasis for Kirkus considers its departure from the usual setting and characters something of a relief (rev. of Anabasis, 867). Another admires the author’s “enthusiasm for her heroine” (S. Smith 128), and a third praises the “uplifting tale of a valiant young woman” (Joyce 23). It is disturbing to me that appreciation of a woman character’s strong self-image is so late in coming and directed to a character in a fantasy—indeed one who, as the reviewer for Publishers Weekly points out, is not “wholly credible” (rev. of Anabasis 382)—when it was denied to the more realistic Anna Hand.

With the publication of The Age of Miracles (1995), Gilchrist returns to the medium of the short story; to her first recurring characters, Rhoda, Crystal, and Nora Jane; and, in most of the stories, to New Orleans and Fayetteville, Arkansas. Seemingly as a result, it is the strongest of her recent works, and the reviewers concur with this opinion. At the same time, one can still find in this volume the weaknesses already examined: unbelievable characterizations of young women and narcissistic characterizations of older women—the problem with the latter being that the author does not seem aware of these women’s narcissism. She and her characters have lost the self-knowledge praised by such early reviewers as Thulani Davis, who once remarked of Gilchrist’s characters, “terrible as they are, these people see themselves so clearly they are both interesting and sympathetic” (12).

In the same year, Little, Brown published a volume entitled Rhoda, a Life in Stories, in which Gilchrist has collected and organized in chronological order most of the Rhoda stories from her previous books, an excerpt from Net of Jewels, and two additional Rhoda stories. Upon examination of this collection, it is interesting to note that Rhoda’s life adventures during her forties are missing, leaving the reader to wonder about how she developed from a philandering wife who is burdened by motherhood (except when she hands her children over to her father, mother, or husband’s care), who drinks too much, and who is obsessed with her weight, to the Rhoda approaching her sixties, who is no longer obsessed with finding the perfect lover or escaping her father’s influence and who is devoted to her grandchildren. This transition (or rather, lack thereof) is analyzed in the final chapter of this study. The collection itself demonstrates microcosmically the point made repeatedly here regarding how Gilchrist’s canon is an organic story cycle. Even after the publication of this collection, because of the missing decade the reader does not feel that Rhoda’s story is complete and thus waits for further installments in later books.

Gilchrist’s next collection of short stories, The Courts of Love (1996), provides one such installment, although half of this volume continues the adventures of another set of recurring characters—Nora Jane, her husband Freddy, her twins, her former lover Sandy—and includes some spin-off tales involving the people they meet during their new adventures. There are dark moments in these stories, but again, everything works out well for those characters in whom Gilchrist has the most invested—that is, Nora Jane, Freddy, and the twins.

Gilchrist’s most recent book, the novel Sarah Conley (1997), is reminiscent of her first two novels, The Annunciation and The Anna Papers, in that at its center is a strong female writer. Like the characters in her more recent fiction, however, the title character of this novel never really suffers. Her father’s death occurs “off-stage” before the novel’s opening, and just after it opens she finds a surrogate father in her best friend’s home. The only crisis in her life is that she and her apparent soulmate realize they are in love with each other just before she is to marry his brother and he is to marry her best friend. They consummate this love once, she gets pregnant (although since she has sex with his brother later that same evening, she never knows which brother is the father), and then they marry their original intendeds. The novel then jumps ahead twenty years to just before the death of this same best friend, after which Sarah and her one-time lover rekindle their relationship (she is divorced from his brother by this time). Although most of the novel develops the conflict involved when two career-oriented people try to make a life together, still there is little tension, little of the angst involved in deciding whether to compromise one’s career goals for love, and all eventually winds up happily: Sarah gets to keep both her lover and her career.

If one recalls how, early in her career, Gilchrist responded to negative reviews of her novel with a short story that simultaneously parodied the novel and mocked the reviewers, it is troubling to realize that she seems, in most recent years, to be allowing her readers to dictate the tone of her writing. One can find evidence of this as early as Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle, in which she published two more chapters to The Annunciation. In an essay for Southern Magazine, Gilchrist refers to having “confuse[d] and sadden[ed her] readers” when she killed off a main character in The Annunciation (“White” 66). This reference to her readers’ disappointment with the novel’s original ending supports the view that she wrote the “new ending” to please them. Then one notices that it is after the negative response to the dark tone of I Cannot Get You Close Enough and Net of Jewels that Gilchrist began—to borrow Victoria Jenkins’s analogy—playing fairy godmother to her characters. But rather than focus on the weaknesses of Gilchrist’s recent fiction, I turn now to one of her achievements in her early work: the evolution of the composite personality at the center of her organic story cycle.


Although Gilchrist’s stories and novels can be read and appreciated individually, recognizing their intratextual nature reveals the increasing interdependence of each story and novel upon her other works published both earlier and later, which, in turn, contributes to one’s sense that the organic story cycle is evolving. So, too, is the composite personality at its center, the initial prototype for which is Rhoda Manning. Rhoda is the protagonist of four stories in Gilchrist’s first book of fiction. She appears in most of Gilchrist’s subsequent volumes of short fiction and is the central character of one of Gilchrist’s novels, but the details of her life are not always consistent, reminding the reader that the individual works are to some extent autonomous. It is undeniable, however, that they are also interrelated; thus, the inconsistencies give the reader pause to consider their significance.

Like Faulkner, Gilchrist sometimes changes the circumstances of Rhoda’s life from one work to another. In The Faulkner-Cowley File, Cowley lists several discrepancies between details in the novel The Sound and the Fury and the appendix Faulkner wrote to the novel for the Viking Portable Faulkner, which Cowley edited (41–42). An example of a more significant inconsistency might also be noted between the same novel and the short story “That Evening Sun”: although Quentin Compson commits suicide at nineteen years old in the novel, a twenty-four-year-old Quentin Compson narrates the short story. If Faulkner can raise a character from the dead, then Gilchrist can give a character back her lost virginity, which is perhaps the most significant instance of an inconsistency from one work to another in her fiction: she presents nineteen-year-old Rhoda as a virgin in the beginning of Net of Jewels, in spite of the story “Music” in Victory over Japan, in which fourteen-year-old Rhoda loses her virginity.

It is not my intention to repeat (within my analysis of Gilchrist’s work) Malcolm Cowley’s quest to pin Faulkner down on his inconsistencies from one work to another. I will instead borrow from Faulkner’s response to Cowley’s endeavors to explain Gilchrist’s inconsistencies here and elsewhere in her canon. Referring to the appendix he wrote to The Sound and the Fury for Cowley’s Portable Faulkner, Faulkner explained,

The inconsistencies in the appendix prove to me the book is still alive after 15 years, and being still alive is growing, changing; the appendix was done at the same heat as the book, even though 15 years later, and so it is the book itself which is inconsistent: not the appendix. That is, at the age of 30 I did not know these people as at 45 I now do; that I was even wrong now and then in the very conclusions I drew from watching them, and the information in which I once believed.

(Cowley 90)

Similarly, explaining Rhoda’s reinstated virginity, Gilchrist herself has said, “The more I’ve written about Rhoda, the more I know about her” (W. Smith 46), a statement that prepares for my perception of an evolving prototype at the center of the larger story cycle made up of Gilchrist’s whole body of fiction.

Although the Gilchrist enthusiast looks forward to reading new installments of Rhoda’s life, knowledge of the events already narrated is not necessary to the understanding and enjoyment of any of the Rhoda stories, until, perhaps, the novella “Mexico” (which closes Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle) and the novel Net of Jewels. To appreciate fully these two later works, both of which have received negative reviews, the reader’s understanding of the character of Rhoda Manning, as it has been established in the earlier Rhoda stories, is helpful. Without having read these stories of an intelligent, strong-willed, for the most part likable young girl’s battles against the sexism of her community and family, one might have difficulty sympathizing with the spoiled young woman and frustrated older woman she becomes.

Net of Jewels covers Rhoda’s life from her college years through the early years of her first marriage. In the beginning of the novel, Rhoda’s character is shown to be quite like that of the Rhoda in many short stories that recount this protagonist’s childhood and adolescence. As a young adult, she is precocious and spoiled and yet, for a while, still endearing because of her vivacity and strong will. Her major weakness is that she allows her concern about winning her father’s approval to dictate her life. The reader familiar with Rhoda’s childhood and adolescence knows that for many years she has fought the propensity within herself to worship a father who constantly manipulates and criticizes her and rarely recognizes her talents and achievements. Gilchrist shows in the course of this novel, however, that even as strong a person as Rhoda cannot continue to withstand the constant rejection of her achievements by one so loved and revered as a parent, particularly since that rejection seems based solely on the fact that Rhoda is a daughter, rather than a son, and is, for that reason primarily, viewed to be naturally lacking. Rhoda becomes less and less sympathetic to the reader as the novel progresses and she continues to call on her father for help, regardless of the price she knows she will be made to pay: her independence. The reader wants her to learn to be smarter than that but should realize that her reliance upon her father is a learned behavior after many years of oppression under his empowered will.

In “Mexico,” too, Gilchrist shows the consequences to Rhoda’s development of her not receiving the love she longs for from her father. In her fifties in this novella, Rhoda feels that she has spent her whole life looking for a man who would love her—and the reader familiar with her past knows this to be true. Thus, even at fifty-three she has not matured very far beyond the little girl of the early stories. At the end of the novella, however, Rhoda considers finally growing up, and the result, if one considers the works intratextually, is the novel Net of Jewels, which Rhoda has ostensibly written at the age of fifty-five or sometime thereafter, perhaps as a step in that direction. Then, in three of the stories in The Age of Miracles (“A Wedding in Jackson,” “Paris,” and particularly “The Uninsured”), the reader sees the completion of Rhoda’s journey. Rhoda seems in these works, in which she is approaching sixty, as vital as ever but more content with herself than she has ever been. This way in which the novella, the novel, and these stories work together again illustrates the cyclical nature of Gilchrist’s fiction.

When Rhoda Manning is introduced in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, she is immediately revealed to be an important figure in Gilchrist’s fiction: in that collection, she is the only character to appear in more than one story. Another character in that volume later becomes a recurring figure in Gilchrist’s body of work: Nora Jane Whittington of the story “The Famous Poll at Jody’s Bar.” The development of Nora Jane’s character from this story to her appearances in Victory over Japan,Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle and The Courts of Love is further evidence of the growing interdependence of Gilchrist’s work. Nora Jane’s reappearance in two of the stories in Victory over Japan, Gilchrist’s second collection, is preceded by a note from the author in which she reviews for the newcomer to her fiction Nora Jane’s adventures in the earlier collection. This is the only time Gilchrist includes such a note in one of her books. In later works, when knowledge of events from earlier stories is necessary or relevant to what is happening to the protagonist in the present work, she merely sums up those events within the story she is currently telling, often changing or elaborating upon details to suit the goals of the moment.

As a recurring character Nora Jane is different from Gilchrist’s other recurring protagonists in another way as well. She is the only one whose story is told chronologically from story to story, book to book, with two exceptions: “The Blue House” of The Age of Miracles and “New Orleans” of The Courts of Love, which are both prequels to the rest of her stories. Still, she is the only one of these characters whose stories could be easily put together into a chronologically consistent novel. Consequently, however, one might not appreciate as fully later Nora Jane stories without knowledge of details in the preceding ones. Also, the prequels might not be so poignant to readers not familiar with her later life adventures. Thus, her stories do not contribute to the cyclical nature of Gilchrist’s organic story cycle as well as do the stories of the other recurring characters.

Nora Jane herself differs from other major recurring characters in that she belongs to a generation younger than theirs. In that way, she anticipates, as early as Gilchrist’s first book of fiction, a new generation of female protagonists who have stepped to the front of the stage in Gilchrist’s more recent works.

But long before she turned her attention to this younger generation, Gilchrist introduced another recurring character, Crystal Manning Mallison Weiss, a cousin and contemporary of Rhoda Manning. Crystal is introduced in Victory over Japan by her black maid and closest companion, Traceleen, who narrates several of the five stories in which she appears in this volume and many of the other segments of Crystal’s life to follow in later books. The relationship between these two women is perhaps the most positive relationship between any two people in all of Gilchrist’s work. Traceleen loves and accepts Crystal as she is, and rather than playing upon Crystal’s weaknesses to manipulate her, as Crystal’s husband, ex-husband, son, and brother do, Traceleen helps Crystal to overcome these weaknesses.

More Crystal/Traceleen stories can be found in Drunk with Love and Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle. In between these two volumes, in The Anna Papers, Crystal and her family appear as minor characters who attend the funeral of Anna Hand, another Manning cousin. The Weisses and some of the Hands come together again, this time sharing the spotlight more evenly, in “Summer in Maine,” the last novella of I Cannot Get You Close Enough. And finally, Crystal’s family appears sporadically in the latest Hand-focused novel, Starcarbon; they are the central focus of one of the stories in The Age of Miracles (“Too Much Rain, or The Assault of the Mold Spores”); and they play a minor role in another story in that collection (“The Raintree Street Bar and Washerteria”).

Anna Hand is the fourth of Gilchrist’s major recurring characters and the apex of Gilchrist’s development of her prototype. Anna is introduced in “Looking over Jordan” in Victory over Japan (the story mentioned previously in which Gilchrist makes fun of her first novel and its reviewers: Anna is an author whose novel The Ascension is harshly reviewed by the protagonist of this story). Anna is also the main character of the story “Anna, Part I,” which closes Drunk with Love and, by its title, anticipates The Anna Papers. With the characterization of Anna in the novel, Gilchrist reveals the full potential of her prototype: she can overcome social obstacles and limitations when she recognizes her strengths and does not focus on her weaknesses, and when she uses those strengths toward the creation of her art (Rhoda and Anna are writers, and Nora Jane sings, to name only the creative pursuits of recurring characters), rather than to attract the attention of a man (indeed, men come to Anna; she does not go after them). As is explored in chapters 5 and 6, Anna is not only a development of the prototype as it is manifested in such characters as Rhoda and Crystal; she can also be viewed as a new prototype upon whom the women she leaves behind when she dies—including women from both her own generation and the next generation—will model their lives. Her role as such for her sister, cousins, friends, and nieces begins within The Anna Papers and continues to be evident within the novellas of I Cannot Get You Close Enough.

Before pursuing further Anna’s role as Gilchrist’s second, revised or evolved prototype, one needs to understand Gilchrist’s development of an initial prototype. In the tradition of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, as is examined in chapter 2, Gilchrist created a composite personality for her first collection of stories, which is in itself a story cycle. As Nick Adams is the prototype upon which the other characters in In Our Time, the collection in which he first appears, are based, as well as the prototype for the Hemingway hero in general, so is Gilchrist’s Rhoda Manning the prototype for the other protagonists in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams and her later works of fiction. In preparation for his analysis of Faulkner’s various manifestations of a particular character type, John T. Irwin explains, “Sometimes a writer gets an idea for the structure of a character, and one fictional incarnation isn’t enough to exhaust the possibilities inherent in it, possibilities for its development that may often be mutually exclusive” (“Horace” 543). Crystal Manning, for example, is another manifestation of the Rhoda character type; so, too, are many one-time-only protagonists, such as the women and girls at the center of the other stories in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams; Lady Margaret Sarpie of “Looking over Jordan” (discussed in chapter 3), Diane of “The Gauzy Edge of Paradise,” and Lilly Kase of “Crazy, Crazy, Now Showing Everywhere” in Victory over Japan; and Annalisa Livingston of “First Manhattans” (discussed in chapter 3), JeanAnne Lori Mayfield of “The Last Diet,” and Helen Altmont of “Belize” in Drunk with Love. However, one might turn to Faulkner’s development of a character type for an analogy of how Gilchrist’s prototype also evolves in a way that the Hemingway hero does not (as argued more fully in chapter 2).

Critics agree that Faulkner’s Horace Benbow and Gavin Stevens share quite similar personality traits with his Quentin Compson. Unlike Quentin, however, these two men live past the age of nineteen, though Horace is emotionally destroyed by the end of the novel Sanctuary, in which work he is forty-three. In contrast to both Quentin and Horace, then, Gavin is somehow able to survive physically and emotionally through several works, in spite of the romantic nature and strong attachment to his sister that make him so like his two precursors. The reason that Horace is able, for a while at least, to maintain his idealism and to defy the sister with whom he is unconsciously obsessed is that he is an evolution of the Quentin prototype. Gavin, a further evolution of the same prototype, suffers only in that he appears and feels foolish after his romantic escapades chasing after Eula Varner Snopes; also, he is merely close to rather than obsessed with his own sister. With each manifestation of the prototype subsequent to Quentin, Faulkner’s characterization reveals growth in the original spirit, as though each character were able to learn from the mistakes of the earlier version(s) of himself.

Similarly, a few of Gilchrist’s protagonists evolve from rather than merely being more manifestations of the Rhoda Manning prototype, as I show in the following chapters. The evolution begins with Amanda McCamey of The Annunciation and the two additional chapters to the novel included in Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle. As John Irwin sees “Horace Benbow as a transitional figure between Quentin Compson and Gavin Stevens” (“Horace” 544), so, too, can Amanda McCamey be seen as a transitional figure between Rhoda Manning and Anna Hand. In the beginning of her novel, Amanda’s character has much in common with Rhoda’s: she, too, is spoiled and headstrong and longs for love to replace the parental love she missed out on as a child (due to her father’s death and her mother’s perpetual mourning). Halfway through The Annunciation, however, Amanda focuses her energy upon her power to create art, leaving behind a rich but incompatible husband, as well as the memory of the male cousin with whom she was obsessed for most of her life up to that point, to pursue a career as a translator, with a plan to proceed from translating to writing her own poems and novels. She regresses somewhat when she meets a young man and becomes so caught up in her affair with him that she is unable to work for a while. At the end of her novel, however, Amanda is able to regroup her strengths and is preparing to try again to live her own life as she determines it should be lived. This resolve includes having the baby she conceives even though she is unmarried and in her forties and also finding the daughter she gave up for adoption, under family duress, when she was a teenager. Indeed, she is further empowered by her ability to have children, whereas Rhoda finds pregnancy and motherhood to be debilitating.

Another protagonist whose character is a development of Rhoda’s and an anticipation of Anna’s is Sally Lanier Sykes of “The Blue-Eyed Buddhist” in Drunk with Love. As I have argued elsewhere, this story anticipates in a number of ways The Anna Papers (“Water” 88–89). “The Blue-Eyed Buddhist” opens with the fact stated simply that thirty-four-year-old “Sally Lanier Sykes was going to die” (DL 161). Sally is another of Gilchrist’s headstrong women who love life, but her kidneys are failing; so she plans one last adventure before settling herself into the room her husband is equipping with her new dialysis machine. Before allowing herself to be imprisoned to await death, she attempts to set free the sea animals fenced in by a research facility, a feat she “can brag about … till the day [she] die[s]” (DL 183). Ironically, she drowns while trying to accomplish the task. Though not a suicide, her death foreshadows the death that Anna Hand will choose when she learns that she has cancer. That Sally’s death is accidental reflects the fact that her character is merely a step toward Anna’s. She has not consciously chosen to end her life rather than live it less fully, as Anna does.

Following Anna’s development in The Anna Papers (analyzed in chapter 5), the women characters in Gilchrist’s fiction can be divided into two groups: the women of Anna’s own generation, like her sister Helen, Rhoda, Crystal, and Crystal’s friend Lydia, who on the one hand are angered by her death but who, on the other, compare themselves to her and strive to be more like her; and the women of the next generation, including, for example, Anna’s nieces Olivia and Jessie, Traceleen’s niece Andria, and Crystal’s daughter Crystal Anne, all of whom take center stage in I Cannot Get You Close Enough and appear in Starcarbon, though the latter focuses primarily on Olivia alone. One can further classify Gilchrist’s new generation of young women characters in these and her other post—Anna Papers works into those whose characters are based upon the evolution of the prototype—Anna Hand—and those whose characters are more similar to the original prototype—Rhoda Manning—again reflecting the recursive nature of this organic story cycle.


The interconnectedness of Gilchrist’s cast of characters reveals that, like her four precursors who are discussed in subsequent chapters, she has created a community of characters, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, only extending beyond Mississippi into Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Indiana, Oklahoma, and even California and New York, to name only those states in which several or major works are set. The large area of her fictional “county” is indicative of the postmodern world she and her characters inhabit. The presence of many of these characters in regions of the country outside the South (occasionally even outside the country, though only temporarily so) reflects both the expansion and the assimilation of the South, just as Gilchrist’s connection to Hemingway as well as to Faulkner, Porter, and Chopin reflects her position in the American as well as southern literary traditions.

Within her canon, Gilchrist’s works engage provocatively in various dialogues with several literary traditions as they are represented by these writers whose work is analyzed intertextually with hers in the next four chapters. Before proceeding further, given the various ways in which critics have employed the term intertext and the various definitions of intertextuality, I will define my own use of the term and my method of intertextual criticism as it is practiced in the following four chapters. Put simply, as Michael Riffaterre has done, “the intertext proper is the corpus of texts the reader may legitimately connect with the one before his[/her] eyes, that is, the texts brought to mind by what he[/she] is reading” (627). As my explanation of method to follow will reveal, I have combined various critics’ theories regarding intertextuality into a practice that allows me to illustrate the way that Gilchrist’s works are similar to and/or deviate from other writings within two different traditions of American literature: the short story tradition, specifically the development of a composite personality within a story cycle; and southern literature, specifically the development of female characters and feminist issues within southern literature.

In her explanation of “Textual Feminism,” Nelly Furman argues that the work of a woman writer should “be construed as the product of a prior reading” (50). She supports making this assumption of a literary historical sense (as T. S. Eliot would call it): “Writing is an inscription within an existing literary code, either in the form of an appropriation or a rejection. To study women writers as readers is to analyze their interaction with the cultural system, and to determine how their texts propose a critique of the dominant patriarchal tenor of literary expression” (Furman 50). Such is my intention with Gilchrist’s work. To accomplish this goal, my approach to Gilchrist follows the example of Nancy A. Walker, who shows in The Disobedient Writer “some of the ways in which women writers have worked against, revised, and reinterpreted some of the literary traditions they have known” (18).

Like Walker, I do not spend time in my study proving authorial intention. I have not, for example, found quotations from interviews in which Gilchrist admits that she modeled her first collection of short stories upon Hemingway’s In Our Time or her prototype upon either Nick Adams or Porter’s Miranda Gay; nor have I interviewed the author myself to ask her if she consciously drew her conflicts for her first novel from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and began her second novel where Chopin ended The Awakening. My contentions may therefore seem presumptuous. In the passage quoted previously, Furman condones the presumption that women writers are also readers, but for those uncomfortable with assumptions not based on concrete evidence, I support my methods with reader-centered intertextual theories. John Frow explains that “the identification of an intertext is an act of interpretation” rather than an argument for influence: “The intertext is not a real and causative source but a theoretical construct formed by and serving the purposes of a reading” (46).

Such perceptions of the intertexts in a work of literature focus on what Jonathan Culler refers to in The Pursuit of Signs as the “prior body of discourse” (101) that exists before the text in question. Culler explains that “literary works are to be considered not as autonomous entities, ‘organic wholes,’ but as intertextual constructs: sequences which have meaning in relation to other texts which they take up, cite, parody, refute, or generally transform. A text can be read only in relation to other texts” (38, emphasis added). As Susan Stanford Friedman has noted, this perception of the literary tradition transforms Harold Bloom’s theories of influence into theories of intertextuality (156). Roland Barthes, in fact, goes so far in his emphasis upon the reader’s part in the making of the meaning of the text (as opposed to the writer’s) as to contend that the “site where this multiplicity [of the text, which he notes “consists of multiple writings, proceeding from several cultures and entering into dialogue, into parody, into contestation”] … is not the author, as has hitherto been claimed, but the reader” (54). As a reader of the “texts” of Ellen Gilchrist, I hear the echoes of other writers and explore their significance. To a greater extent, then, than Walker, whose primary focus is on the writer’s subversive nature, my focus includes the reader’s role in recognizing intertextual relationships between texts. I treat these earlier texts by Hemingway, Porter, Faulkner, and Chopin as existing together with the new texts by Ellen Gilchrist within the reader’s literary history, and I show how the reader’s knowledge of these earlier texts affects one’s reading of Gilchrist’s work and, conversely, how reading this relatively new writer’s work leads one to re-view the work of her more established forebears.

Already one can see how my practice of intertextual criticism is derived from several sources, perhaps beginning with Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, in which Julia Kristeva employs Bakhtin’s theory of the dialogic nature of words to set up her own theories of intertextuality (as I employ both of their theories and others to set up mine). Kristeva notes that “Bakhtin situates the text within history and society, which are seen as texts read by the writer, and into which he[/she] inserts him[/her]self by rewriting them” (65). Kristeva concludes from Bakhtin’s “conception of the ‘literary word’ as an intersection of textual surfaces” that each text is “a dialogue among several writings: that of the writer, the addressee … and the contemporary or earlier cultural context” (65), which would include the past reading of writer and readers (addressees, as Kristeva calls them). Kristeva, then, supports my combination of textual feminist assumptions about writers’ intentions with intertextual critics’ focus on the reader.

My employment of Bakhtin’s theories by way of Kristeva’s is perhaps most akin to Jay Clayton and Eric Rothstein’s theories of intertextuality. In the first chapter of their collection of essays entitled Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History, Clayton and Rothstein show how Kristeva’s theories of intertextuality, which are usually focused on the historical, social, and cultural intertexts within a literary work, can be employed to examine literary intertexts: the history of which the writer and her work is a part includes the literature of and available to that writer’s culture. Hence, these literary works are also inevitably being rewritten by the writer (18–20). Clayton and Rothstein turn to Bakhtin, too, then, to allude to the impossibility of critics divorcing themselves from literary history when preparing to assess a particular text:

Bakhtin authorizes this attention to history by shifting linguistic analysis from the grammatical, atemporal plane to that of the individual utterance, which is always caught up in a context of other utterances. A sign can never be analyzed in isolation, for its meaning is always informed by the many other conflicting ways it has been used by other speakers. Thus one focuses not on the usual linguistic unit, the sign, but on the relation of one sign to other signs.


In other words, an analysis of a new writer’s work should include, as this study of Gilchrist’s work does, the relation of the work to what has preceded it, indeed has apparently played some role in its existence being what it is. The literary text, as Kristeva notes, “does not simply exist but is generated in relation to another structure” (64–65). But Bakhtin has noted the reciprocal benefits of reading works of literature together. According to Bakhtin, “every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates” (Bakhtin 280).

As already indicated, another influence upon my practice of intertextual criticism is Barthes’s explanation of the function of the reader in determining the meaning of a text: “the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any of them being lost, all the citations out of which a writing is made; the unity of a text is not in its origin but in its destination” (54). My employment of Barthes’s theory in relation to intertextuality has been anticipated by Tilottama Rajan, who explains the role of the reader in recognizing literary intertexts and thereby justifies intertextual readings by critics. Rajan casts the literary text onto two planes: the horizontal, on which it “operates exclusively as an interchange between the text and contemporaneous writings,” and the vertical, on which it “functions … in relation to previous and future history” (67). Due to this vertical plane, Rajan says, “it becomes necessary to posit a reader who will effect the transposition of the horizontal into the vertical” (67). This explanation of intertextuality calls to mind T. S. Eliot’s notion of the presence of the past and the present’s ability to affect the past. Rajan points to that “aspect of the vertical dimension [which] is the reinsertion of the writer’s own scripts in that text which calls them into being and also marks their limits and complicities” (67).

In sum, examining Gilchrist’s work intertextually with the work of various other writers—that is, examining dialogic relationships between her works and the works of others as well as echoes of other writers’ works in her stories—both enhances her themes and conflicts and provides a fresh reading of the themes and conflicts of her predecessors. In “Weavings: Intertextuality and the (Re)Birth of the Author,” Susan Friedman defines the purpose of an intertextual reading most succinctly: “The interesting question for the critic [is] how the successor(s) adapted, assimilated, revised, transformed, altered, reshaped, or revised the precursor(s)” (155). Clayton and Rothstein have provided a method for such intertextual readings of literary works akin to the deconstructionist’s approach: they suggest that the critic follow Derrida’s “active intertextual practice, in which intertextuality becomes the critic’s method of probing, fissuring, disorienting, and dangerously supplementing the text at hand so as to exhibit its implications and implicatedness” (19). For example, reading Gilchrist together with these other writers reveals, first of all, how she has transformed the traditions out of which she is writing: the American patriarchal short-story tradition as it is epitomized in the work of Ernest Hemingway, whose female characters are usually among those who would thwart his male characters’ ideals, and the southern patriarchal literary tradition as it is epitomized in the work of William Faulkner, who, even as he depicts the oppression of women, objectifies his female characters. Second, one can see how, as she develops her craft within these traditions, her writings deviate from the examples set by these male models. One is therefore not surprised to find similarities between her work and the work of two southern women writers, Katherine Anne Porter and Kate Chopin. However, Gilchrist also transforms these women’s techniques, characters, and themes, at times allowing for more positive development of her characters, reflecting a lessening of female oppression in the more recent South, and at other times showing the continuing, if not increasing, oppression of women in a patriarchal society.

Margaret Donovan Bauer (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15115

SOURCE: “Gilchrist's Composite Personality and Story Cycle: Transforming Ernest Hemingway,” in her The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist, University Press of Florida, 1999, pp. 23-56.

[In the following essay, Bauer analyzes Hemingway's influence on Gilchrist's work, especially her story cycle and her use of a composite personality.]

Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.

Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision”

It was Ernest Hemingway’s new book, and it had come from the book club the day she left North Carolina. She had been waiting for it to come for weeks. Now she opened it to the first page, holding it up to her nose and giving it a smell … “This is going to be a good one. I can tell.”

Ellen Gilchrist, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams

In Gilchrist’s “1957, a Romance,” as Rhoda Manning begins to read Across the River and into the Trees, she tells her father that Ernest Hemingway is her “favorite writer” (In the Land of Dreamy Dreams 85; hereafter cited as LDD). In light of this detail about Gilchrist’s admittedly most autobiographical character, it is not as surprising as it might otherwise be to find that a contemporary southern woman writer’s story cycles have been created in the tradition of the story cycles of Ernest Hemingway and that her prototypical character Rhoda Manning has much in common with Hemingway’s Nick Adams. However, the allusions to and parallels with works by Hemingway throughout Gilchrist’s work reveal, in addition to Gilchrist’s development of story cycles and composite personalities in the tradition of Hemingway, the deconstruction of the Hemingway hero.

Writing of Hemingway’s first story cycle, Clinton S. Burhans, Jr., argues that “In Our Time is indeed a consciously unified work … containing the careful artistry and the central vision of the world and the human condition which characterize Hemingway’s writing from beginning to end. As such, In Our Time is not only the first of Hemingway’s major works but also the best introduction to his thought and art in the rest” (88). Similarly, Gilchrist’s first collection of short stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, provides several avenues of introduction into her canon. First of all, the collection is a well-crafted short story cycle, a medium with which Gilchrist continues to experiment. Second, in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, Gilchrist begins to develop a composite female personality, which she will continue to draw on in creating other female protagonists for her later stories. Third, this collection introduces two of the major recurring characters of her fiction: Rhoda Manning and Nora Jane Whittington. Fourth, within many of the stories of this volume, one can find the genesis for still other works and characters. And finally, the themes developed in these stories—particularly those concerning issues of class, race, gender, and people’s unwillingness to face truths about themselves or others—are all themes Gilchrist will return to again and again in her fiction.

Like In Our Time, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams is a rendition of a particular kind of short story collection, what Carl Wood calls “a fragmentary novel” and what other critics have termed a short story cycle. Whichever term one prefers, Wood’s definition, which he applied to In Our Time, can be used to describe In the Land of Dreamy Dreams: “a collection of short stories which are unified, not merely by a common theme or subject matter, but also by a discernible plot development dealing with a single character or a single personality type represented in several characters” (725). It seems, therefore, that Gilchrist has written her first collection in the same form with which Hemingway began.

As Hemingway did with Nick Adams, then, Gilchrist placed at the center of several of her stories in this collection a single character who ultimately emerges as the prototype for the other characters in the collection, as well as for most of the protagonists of Gilchrist’s entire body of fiction. Susan Garland Mann feels that Nick’s “presence is almost continuously felt” throughout In Our Time. The unnamed protagonists, for example, “so closely resemble [Nick] Adams that many readers assume he is the character involved. Also, some of the other [named] protagonists … remind us to Nick because even if they differ from him in some important ways, they still resemble him since they share similar experiences, personality traits, and family or social backgrounds” (Mann 75). Therefore, Mann concludes from Hemingway’s use of a “composite personality,” “the reader is almost always in the presence of Nick or someone who invites a comparison with Nick” (75). The same can be said of Rhoda Manning. Her presence in four of the fourteen stories in this collection catches the reader’s attention. Her character is reinforced each time she appears. The comparisons between Rhoda and many of the other stories’ main characters thereby become more significant, and the reader recognizes the unity of the collection. The stories repeatedly show a type of person who resists maturity and reality. In the stories featuring a child protagonist, the reader can either see or infer the consequences of such resistance in whatever circumstances the protagonist finds herself. In the stories featuring an adult protagonist, Gilchrist depicts the inevitable fate of this type of character.

Illustrating how the adult protagonists of several of the stories of In Our Time share a single personality, Carl Wood describes them all as “drifting and disillusioned member[s] of the lost generation who [are] unhappily married and whiling away [their] time in Europe” (722). He then notes that “when Nick appears in an identical situation in …‘Cross Country Snow,’ the cycle of alternative versions of the same personality is complete” (722). Not only are Gilchrist’s characters similar in nature, but also, in the stories with adult protagonists in her first collection, one can see that she, too, has created almost “interchangeable characters in a narrative of the development of a single central personality” (C. Wood 722). Lelia of “The President of the Louisiana Live Oak Society,” Alisha of “There’s a Garden of Eden,” Nora Jane of “The Famous Poll at Jody’s Bar,” LaGrande of “In the Land of Dreamy Dreams,” and Melissa’s mother (unnamed) of “Indignities” anticipate the prototype Rhoda Manning, who will be introduced to the reader as an adult in the story “1957, a Romance.” Even closer in character to Rhoda, particularly the child Rhoda who is the central character of the three other Rhoda stories from this collection—“Revenge,” “1944,” and “Perils of the Nile”—are the young girls Helen of ““Rich,” Margaret of “Generous Pieces,” LeLe of “Traveler,” and Matille of “Summer, an Elegy.” As Wood says of the resemblance of Hemingway’s Harold Krebs to Nick Adams in “background and predicament,” these girls and women “may [each] be regarded in some sense as an alternate version of the personality Nick [or, in this case, Rhoda] represents” (721).

Although the development of a composite personality in the course of these two story cycles is similar, the two authors’ arrangement of the stories in these volumes is exactly opposite. Susan Mann points out that the stories of In Our Time “are arranged so that the composite protagonist gradually grows older” (10). In In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, on the other hand, the protagonists of the first half of the stories are adults, while the protagonists of the second half are children. Reading the two works intertextually, then, illuminates via contrast what Gilchrist achieves by ordering her stories as she does. Hemingway’s order shows the gradual development of a personality type out of the character’s experiences from childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Gilchrist chooses, rather, to present the shocking adult personalities first and then to illustrate how these women are products of their common upbringing. In this way, Gilchrist emphasizes the sinister role that society (the same social system that tortures her adult protagonists) plays in the development of her child protagonists.

In comparison, both authors interrupt the chronological progression forward (in Hemingway’s case) or backward (in Gilchrist’s). Hemingway places “My Old Man,” with its adolescent protagonist, toward the end of his collection, surrounded by adult Nick Adams stories. Positioning this story of the boy Joe Butler in between these Nick Adams stories, Hemingway recalls to the reader’s mind the boy Nick of the early stories, thereby reminding the reader of the early experiences that contributed to the development of the adult personality. In the first two stories of Gilchrist’s collection, “Rich” and “The President of the Louisiana Live Oak Society,” the narration diverges briefly from the adult protagonists’ points of view to their children’s perspectives. Similar to what Hemingway has done, Gilchrist is thereby reminding the reader that the adults of these stories were once children growing up within the same social setting, a fact which seems to contribute significantly to their present state of mind. Even more in keeping with Hemingway’s interruption of his adult stories with “My Old Man,” after the first story with a protagonist based on the child Rhoda prototype, Gilchrist interrupts the (again, backward) progression (or regression, one might say) with a final story with an adult protagonist who looks back on her childhood, during which she suffered “Indignities” (the story’s title) similar to those the children in the surrounding stories are suffering. The placement of “Indignities” again reminds the reader that the little girl in the preceding story and those who will appear in the next stories, Rhoda included, will grow up and continue to be affected by the events of their childhoods.

Clinton Burhans notes of In Our Time that, as well as through the use of either the recurring character Nick Adams or “a central character like him in all but name” and the almost consistent chronological order of the stories, unity is achieved by “themes introduced and developed” throughout the collection, by Hemingway’s “pattern of alternating locales” (90), and by the vignettes that focus “even more specifically on various ways in which men immediately threatened by [the] human condition respond to it. … Together, these vignettes show men responding to harsh experience with fear, drunkenness, disillusion, hypocritical prayer, and dissociation” (92). Gilchrist’s collection is also unified by its composite personality, as pointed out by Jeanie Thompson and Anita Miller Garner: “In gathering for the reader a whole cast of female characters in various stages of life, with the character Rhoda appearing by name in four of the stories, Gilchrist achieves a kind of coherence of style and voice that is absent from many first collections of short fiction” (104–5). I would add that this unity is enhanced through the employment of all three of the additional methods that Hemingway uses to achieve unity. Gilchrist develops several recurring themes, including class consciousness and familial discord. The stories in the opening section are all set in New Orleans, and after that, most of them are either set in the South or center around southerners living outside the South. Finally, one can find in these stories all of the responses to the human condition that Burhans lists, though most of the characters whose “respon[ses] to harsh experience” are the focus of Gilchrist stories are women. Gilchrist thereby shows that male and female reactions to the “human condition” are not necessarily distinctive.

As already mentioned, Susan Mann explains Hemingway’s accomplishment with In Our Time’s recurring character and character type: a “composite personality” at the center of a collection that includes several different protagonists. Mann explains that “with Nick Adams, Hemingway provides a substantial, psychologically complex protagonist; and since most of the other major characters closely resemble Nick, the author also successfully creates a composite personality: the Middle American who is wounded in battle and has difficulty readjusting after the war is over” (71). Hemingway’s development of a composite personality illuminates the common experiences and attitudes of the male members of the generation of World War I. Upon recognizing that Gilchrist develops a Hemingway-like composite personality in her own collection, the reader should then note how she even draws upon and then transforms his characterization of his composite personality to suit her own purposes. To start, one might note that many of Gilchrist’s stories with child protagonists, including several of the Rhoda stories in this first and the later collections, are set during World War II. Although Gilchrist alludes to the war going on in Europe and Asia, she is more concerned with those who stayed at home: the children and wives of soldiers. In her short story ““Revenge,” for example, Rhoda is staying at her grandmother’s house while her father is overseas; her consequential sense of displacement is aggravated by being the only girl among several male cousins. Furthermore, she is confused by the discrepancy between women being in charge now that most of the men are away and yet nothing changing in her favor; she is still marginalized and limited because of her sex. In this story, as well as in “1944” from this same collection, “Victory over Japan” from the next, and the novel The Annunciation, Gilchrist alludes to war widows (those who are temporary widows while their husbands are overseas and those who are made widows permanently by the war), though they are not the works’ central characters. Still, the child protagonists see the effect of the war on these women; therefore, these women’s reactions to their losses are also part of the children’s own war experiences.

Also as in Hemingway, then, many of the adult protagonists in Gilchrist’s stories who are members of Rhoda’s generation have the experience of a world war, though in their case World War II and not combat experience, as part of their implied pasts—which Hemingway would refer to as the part of the iceberg underwater. Of “Big Two-Hearted River,” for example, Hemingway explains in A Moveable Feast, “The story was about coming back from the war but there was no mention of the war in it” (MF 76), though in this case it is a part of the iceberg that would not have concerned him. His view of women during war is confined to the women his soldier characters meet during their adventures or who are not able to understand their veteran sons’, husbands’, or lovers’ angst following the war.

Hemingway elaborates upon his method of omission in Death in the Afternoon: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water” (DA 192). Gilchrist also employs the iceberg theory. Consequently, the reader must recognize from the tip of the iceberg provided in a single story that there is much more beneath the surface of that story, which will aid in understanding her characters and their actions. As Sally Helgesen explains in her review of Victory over Japan, Gilchrist’s stories seek to answer the question asked by her character Traceleen, “How come they went and did that way?” (Victory over Japan 223; hereafter cited as VJ). Helgesen writes, “Gilchrist has found a perfect vehicle for answering this question. Characters from one story meet characters from another, destinies cross, and random events are later seen to make sense” (55). Thus, much of the iceberg beneath the surface of a single Gilchrist story is the material found in other Gilchrist stories. However, just as in “Big Two-Hearted River” one does not have to know that Nick has recently returned from fighting in World War I to appreciate much of what the story does, neither does one have to have read Gilchrist’s earlier fiction to understand a later work. On the other hand, just as realizing the historical intertext of Hemingway’s story does enhance one’s appreciation of it, so too does knowledge of the events that have occurred to a Gilchrist protagonist in an earlier work enhance one’s reading of a later one.

Recognition of Gilchrist’s entire canon as an organic story cycle provides further evidence that she is writing in the tradition of Hemingway, for Hemingway’s prototype also continues to develop with each of his books. Joseph DeFalco explains, “The complete journey of Nick Adams is not contained in a full cycle of stories; rather his ultimate destiny is involved with that of the other characters. All are to some extent victims of the same plight, and Nick’s fate can be judged according to the reactions of characters with a similar background” (3). The similar development of Gilchrist’s Rhoda Manning prototype should be assessed, therefore, not only by her experiences within the stories in which she appears but also by the author’s development of her prototype as it is manifested in each new character she creates. As Jeanie Thompson and Anita Garner point out in their discussion of In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, Gilchrist “invites us to compare these women with each other and determine whether or not the sum of their experiences adds up to more than just their individual lives” (105).

In subsequent works Gilchrist transforms this Hemingway technique as the character of her later manifestations of the prototype evolves. In contrast, Hemingway’s prototype does not evolve. Perhaps Hemingway was happy with his initial development of the prototype’s personality; he did, after all, focus most of his criticism outward on the causes of the character’s conflicts (the demands of his parents, the war, women upon him). His protagonists turn inward for the strength to deal with their troubles. Hemingway offers, via their actions, a mode of behavior—always to exercise grace under pressure—for men. Gilchrist’s development of her characters’ conflicts also reveals society’s role as antagonist; however, she makes clear her protagonists’ responsibility for what befalls them as well. As her later characters recognize their own culpability, they are able to learn from their mistakes and grow from their experiences. Gilchrist seems, therefore, more interested than Hemingway in having an individual recognize what she can do to improve rather than merely “gracefully” endure her life.

As she allows her prototype to evolve—from Rhoda to Anna Hand—Gilchrist undermines the Hemingway hero’s philosophizing about life and death. In her first two novels, The Annunciation and The Anna Papers the central characters echo the older waiter of Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” in Winner Take Nothing. Alluding to Hemingway in these works, Gilchrist mocks his character’s fear of death in the face of no danger, reducing it to being afraid of the dark. Kenneth G. Johnston explains that at the end of the Hemingway story, the old waiter’s “reluctan[ce] to leave the well-lighted café” is due to his lack of a “comforting belief in God, the protecting Father and Shepherd,” a lack Johnston sees reflected in the old waiter’s parody of the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary effected by his “substitut[ing] nada for every important word in the prayers” (163). At the end of The Annunciation, Amanda, too, transforms the Lord’s Prayer to reflect her own state of mind—not at the end of an ordinary day’s labor but after the labor of childbirth. Feeling empowered and awed by the experience of giving birth, she changes the words of this patriarchal prayer to “My will be done. … My life on my terms, my daughter, my son. My life leading to my lands forever and ever and ever, hallowed be my name, goddammit, my kingdom come, my will be done, amen, so be it, Amanda” (A 353). This is, however, neither parody nor blasphemy. Like the old waiter, Amanda does not believe in God, but unlike him, she does have another source of strength: her faith in herself. She, an evolved manifestation of the Rhoda prototype, achieves this feeling of self-worth by the end of her novel. She has decided to have this baby by herself and for herself and is thus empowered rather than entrapped and endangered by pregnancy and childbirth. Thus, her development reflects an evolutionary step in the development of the prototype.

In a less uplifting echo of the old waiter, Anna Hand leaves a doctor/friend’s office at the beginning of The Anna Papers after refusing an examination to find out what is wrong with her. She thinks, “No doctors. … No checkups. No hospitals, no operating rooms, no chemicals, no nothing. Nada, de nada, de nada. …You are not sick. There is nothing wrong with you” (AP 20). However, there is something very much wrong with her—not the fact that she is going to die “someday,” which is at the root of what troubles Hemingway’s protagonist, but that she is going to die soon. In Hemingway’s story, the older waiter tells the younger waiter, “I have never had confidence and I am not young” (WTN 22). If one substitutes the word “faith” for “confidence,” which is an appropriate substitution given his later ruminations that “it was all a nothing and a man was nothing too” (WTN 23), and then notes his reference to his age, one understands that his insomnia reflects his fear of dying and the “nada” which follows. In contrast to the old waiter, who may have many years still ahead of him, Anna has cancer, and no amount of positive thinking is going to stop it from growing within her. But like Amanda, Anna has “confidence”—not in a religious faith but in herself and in the order of things in the universe. She will accept her death as part of that order. In fact, she will walk right into it—committing suicide by stepping off a pier with a cyanide tablet in her mouth—rather than try to hide from it in lighted rooms (in her case operating rooms) as the old waiter does in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” She is both much like Rhoda—a redhead, a writer, a reader of Hemingway, an overbearing personality, in conflict with her father and brother—and yet an evolution of Rhoda and, even, of Amanda. At the start of her novel, she has achieved the self-acceptance that Amanda reaches only at the end of hers.


In spite of this significant contrast in the authors’ development—and lack thereof—of their prototypes, something else beneath the surface of Gilchrist’s stories is the similarities between the personalities of the original prototypes Nick Adams and Rhoda Manning. Recognizing the parallels prepares the reader for the conflicts that burden the Gilchrist protagonists, though as already suggested, Gilchrist ultimately transforms the Hemingway hero into a more positive heroine. Susan Mann provides three characteristics of the protagonists of In Our Time: “they are generally expatriates, committed to some sport, and unhappily married or unhappy in some other relationship” (75). The Gilchrist protagonists in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams share at least two of these characteristics, the first and third: they are often outsiders, in attitude if not in actuality, and they suffer in unhappy relationships. Ironically, their communal conflicts and failed relationships are a result of the very kind of male-centered society that Hemingway lauded in his fiction. Perhaps to emphasize this connection, Gilchrist draws upon the second characteristic of Hemingway’s protagonists that Mann mentions. In several of the stories of In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, some sport plays a significant role: tennis in “The President of the Louisiana Live Oak Society” and “In the Land of Dreamy Dreams,” both of which take place among the New Orleans upper class; swimming in “1957, a Romance” and “Traveler,” both of which are set in the Deep South in the summer, the latter in the Mississippi Delta; and pole-vaulting in “Revenge,” a story in which the end of World War II is prematurely anticipated so that the characters look forward to the 1944 Olympic Games.

Since three of the Rhoda stories in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams take place when Rhoda is a child, and half of the stories in this collection also focus on children (or more than half when one includes “Rich” and “The President of the Louisiana Live Oak Society,” which have both child and adult protagonists), it is not surprising that a recurring plot line of these stories involves initiation. This unifying element is another significant point of comparison between In the Land of Dreamy Dreams and In Our Time, an exploration of which leads the Gilchrist reader to recognize the recurrent failure of her child characters to learn a lesson from their experiences. Susan Mann explains that “the process of initiation is so centrally important in In Our Time that it almost overshadows the knowledge that should result from the test” (72). She attributes this characteristic to the ironic handling of “the epiphanies or moments of recognition that end many of the … stories” (72). Mann calls these “parodies of Joycean epiphanies”: “Nick at the conclusion of ‘Indian Camp’ comforts himself with the thought that he will never die. Similarly, at the end of ‘Soldier’s Home,’ Harold Krebs convinces himself that he can escape his adjustment problems by leaving home for Kansas City” (72).

“Revenge” ends with an ironic epiphany much like the ones Susan Mann points to in the stories of In Our Time. As previously mentioned, at the end of this story, Rhoda accomplishes her desire to pole-vault like her brother and male cousins. Everyone is there to see it—including her brother, who earlier denied her access to their “broad jump pit” because of her sex. However, her triumph is paradoxically transformed into defeat by the last sentence of the story: “Sometimes I think whatever has happened since has been of no real interest to me” (LDD 124). This sentence foreshadows the stasis of Rhoda’s character in later stories. She is only ten years old when this event occurs, and yet apparently at times she thinks of it as the highlight of her life. One gets the sense from this final comment that she has not had many such victories over the oppressive patriarchal society from which she comes. Reviewer Susan Wood suggests that “Revenge” … would have been better without this last sentence” (13). Rather, it would have been different. Without the last sentence, the story would have ended with a sense of triumph. The last sentence undermines Rhoda’s triumph, which is central to Gilchrist’s point regarding the perpetual influence of the patriarchy.

The recurring initiation theme in both collections illuminates the fact that in the four Rhoda stories in this collection, as well as most of the Rhoda stories throughout Gilchrist’s canon, Rhoda resists growth. Indeed, Mann’s assessment of Hemingway’s protagonists—that they “cannot tolerate too much truth … [and] often sidestep the difficulties that confront them at the ends of the stories” (72)—applies well to Gilchrist’s initial prototype for her composite personality. Again, though, Gilchrist is not so ambiguous as Hemingway: her character may resist the truths facing her, but her readers can’t miss them. In contrast, as Mann points out, Hemingway’s stories “are riddled with ambiguity, because with Hemingway it is often impossible to distinguish between escapism and the kind of temporary retreat [which Hemingway seems to be suggesting] one needs in order to regain a sense of equilibrium” (72, emphasis added). In further contrast, the comic elements of Gilchrist’s stories lead the reader to laugh with her at her character’s foibles even as we sympathize with her dilemmas, while Hemingway’s serious tone fails to suggest that any such mockery is due his character.

As Kenneth Johnston says of Nick Adams, “Nick will suffer through the painful lessons of boyhood and adolescence only to discover the even more terrifying insecurities of adult life” (58), so it will be for Rhoda Manning. Unfortunately, women are less likely to get away with acting according to the Hemingway code of conduct, and this compounds their alienation within and conflict with the patriarchal community. For example, the southern lady is revered for enduring, not escaping, the conflicts she faces. Looking ahead only as far as Rhoda at nineteen, in “1957, a Romance,” one finds that she is considered more stubborn than stoic as she resists her “duties” as wife and mother, and furthermore, although she is able to get the abortion she seeks, Gilchrist’s novel Net of Jewels, which continues this episode in Rhoda’s life, shows that this same act may free her from having another child, but it also binds her more tightly to her father, whom she tries unsuccessfully throughout the novel to escape.

“1957, a Romance,” which concerns primarily Rhoda’s abortion, can be viewed as a deconstruction of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” (from Men without Women), at the center of which is also the subject of abortion. In this first Rhoda story in Gilchrist’s first book (thus the story in which she introduces her prototype), Gilchrist establishes Rhoda’s connection with the Hemingway prototype. Rhoda’s view of her pregnancy is surprisingly similar to the male character’s view in “Hills Like White Elephants”—who, unnamed in the story, could easily be Nick Adams; he shares, in any case, the composite personality of which Nick is the prototype. As Kenneth Johnston assesses him, he is an “eternal adolescent who refuses to put down roots, or to shoulder the responsibilities which are rightfully his” (129).

Like Hemingway’s male character, Rhoda does not want to have the baby, and one can infer, too, that, like the woman in Hemingway’s story, Rhoda’s husband would have a different opinion on the subject, if he knew about it. Thus, in her story, Gilchrist has reversed the attitudes of her characters toward having a baby, thereby undermining any gendered stereotype regarding distinctions between male and female responses to pregnancy or babies. She is not retelling the worn-out story of a man trying to convince a woman to get rid of a baby (found also, for example, in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy). Gilchrist recognizes that women are often just as likely not to be enthusiastic about unplanned pregnancies as their lovers and that many such women would willingly abort their unwanted babies if not for the the risks to their health. Her limited focus on Rhoda, in contrast to the way Hemingway deals with this conflict from both the man’s and the woman’s perspectives, suggests her belief, during the current period of so much conflict over the morality of abortion, in a woman’s rights regarding her own body. The morality of the issue was not so much a social concern during the period in which Hemingway wrote his story. Hemingway alludes to the health risks merely in order to develop the selfishness of his male character, who is willing to risk his lover’s life in order to remain unencumbered by a child. His story takes no stand regarding whether abortion is murder. Although Gilchrist apparently does not consider abortion to be murder either, writing her story post-Roe v. Wade, she does propose the opposite view of abortion in contemporary times—that it is a woman’s right to choose to terminate her pregnancy if she does not wish to have a baby.

In further contrast to Hemingway’s story, from the beginning of Gilchrist’s story the female protagonist is shown to be a strong-willed individual: she wants an abortion and goes to significant lengths to get one without concerning herself with her husband’s wishes. Her characterization, however, may again put one in mind of the man in “Hills Like White Elephants,” whose desire that his lover get an abortion reflects his wish to get rid of a problem rather than take responsibility for his actions. Later stories will reveal that this kind of action is typical of Rhoda, as it is of other Gilchrist female characters: more often than not, Gilchrist’s heroines use their strengths to shirk rather than to take responsibility for their actions.

In spite of Rhoda’s immaturity and irresponsibility, one does not totally blame her for her decision to terminate her pregnancy. Only nineteen years old, she already has two children, both of whom were delivered by cesarean section, a detail that, given the Hemingway connections already noted, might remind the reader of “Indian Camp,” the first Nick Adams story in In Our Time. Rhoda’s very difficult and terrifying first pregnancy is described in “Adoration,” a Rhoda story in Drunk with Love. In that story, Rhoda’s husband Malcolm, like the husband of the woman suffering through labor in “Indian Camp,” is unable to deal with the complications of her pregnancy: “He was scared to death of Rhoda’s terrible blood” (DL 58). Although Malcolm does not commit suicide like the Indian husband, he does turn Rhoda over to the care of her parents by bringing her to a hospital in the town where they live; and he is not seen again in the story until after the crisis has passed.

The Indian father does not behave well, according to the Hemingway code. He is one of the negative examples from whom Nick should learn a lesson. Susan Mann notes of Hemingway’s characters that “what is most important is the manner in which they are able to meet present challenges. Therefore, the actual test in the present tense—whether it is breaking off a relationship that isn’t fun anymore or trying to maintain one’s equilibrium as chaos threatens—is the heart of each story, its major plot and purpose” (72). Applying Mann’s view of the important element in Hemingway’s stories to Gilchrist’s “1957, a Romance,” one can see that Rhoda responds to her “test” by lying, which also goes against Hemingway’s honor codes. In this way, Gilchrist uses her protagonist, rather than a minor character, as a negative example.

Here again Gilchrist’s objectivity toward her characters is evident. She may limit her concern to Rhoda’s dilemma, but she explores this dilemma from all sides. She risks losing the reader’s sympathy for Rhoda by having her lie about and cast the blame elsewhere for her plight. For instance, Gilchrist’s narrator reveals that the explanation for her pregnancy Rhoda gives her father—that her husband “got [her] pregnant on purpose … because he knew [she] was going to leave him”—is untrue: “She always believed her own stories as soon as she told them” (LDD 82). This narrative comment casts suspicion upon Rhoda’s later stories about her husband’s recent behavior, which, in essence, accuse him of raping her to produce this child. Furthermore, Rhoda’s explanation to the doctor as to why she wants an abortion is different from the one she gives her father: to convince the doctor of the necessity of the abortion, she asks, “What would happen to my babies if I died?”—that is, if she were not to survive her next cesarean (LDD 90). Her stories explaining her pregnancy and telling of the problems with her marriage, including an accusation that her husband wants to kill her, become less believable as further evidence of her irresponsible behavior toward her husband and children is revealed by the narrator. The narrator explains, for example, that “this was the third time in two years that Rhoda had run away from her husband and come home to live” (LDD 84). Rhoda’s mother attributes Rhoda’s returns to her wanting someone to take care of her children rather than to problems in her marriage. Mrs. Manning says to Rhoda’s father, “she has to learn to accept some responsibility for something” (LDD 84). Further development of the story, however, brings the reader back around to Rhoda’s side once the reader understands her past, including being spoiled by a Hemingway-like father and living in a patriarchal society, the limitations of which extend even to what she can and cannot do with her own body.

Rhoda’s choice of accomplice in her plan to get an abortion—her father—reveals one condition of her background that somewhat lessens her responsibility for her actions in this story: her upbringing. Her father admits he has “spoiled her rotten” (LDD 82). His prayer promising “a stained-glass window with nobody’s name on it, or a new roof for the vestry” if God will help them get through this ordeal successfully suggests that he believes, and has probably taught Rhoda, that money can buy anything (LDD 82). It also recalls one of the responses from Clinton Burhans’s list of how Hemingway’s characters deal with “harsh experience”—hypocritical prayer. This echo thereby supports my view that Gilchrist’s protagonists were raised by Hemingway-like men who shaped their characters, which in turn explains their own likenesses to the Hemingway hero. Recall again the parallel between Rhoda’s reaction to her pregnancy and that of the man to his lover’s in “Hills Like White Elephants.”

Applying Susan Mann’s assessment of the Hemingway prototype unable to “tolerate too much truth” and “sidestep[ping] the difficulties that confront them at the end of the stories” (72), one can find another parallel between Rhoda and Nick in the ending to “1957, a Romance.” Joseph DeFalco notes of “the infantile and illusory attitudes expressed” at the end of “Indian Camp,” “This is not adjustment to the experience—a necessary step toward development; it is a direct denial of the implications of that experience. Poised on the threshold of illumination, Nick takes a step backward. He is not capable of crossing the threshold into more vital experiences as yet” (48). Neither does Rhoda, although several years older than Nick, gain insight from her ordeal in “1957, a Romance,” in spite of its serious nature. Here, too, her father is partly to blame for her ability to dismiss so easily her experience: after her abortion, “whenever she woke up he was there beside her and nothing could harm her ever as long as he lived. No one could harm her or have power over her or make her do anything as long as he lived” (LDD 92). He takes such good care of her, in fact, that, feeling completely safe, Rhoda has “a dreamless sleep” (LDD 92). She suffers no nightmares from which one could infer subconscious guilt or regret for choosing to terminate her pregnancy. Furthermore, the next day, as she thinks about what she has accomplished, she reduces her abortion to the fact that she will not “have to have any more babies this year” (LDD 92). Regarding her future handling of possible pregnancies, she decides, “All I have to do is have one more and they’ll give me a tubal ligation. … It would be worth having another baby for that. Oh well … at least I don’t have to worry about it anymore for now” (LDD 92). She has just had an abortion and she is already thinking about having a baby, just so the doctor will tie her tubes and she will thereafter no longer have to worry about unplanned pregnancies. Rhoda misses the irony of her future plans entirely. She turns calmly to her book—a Hemingway novel—and falls asleep to dream, not of babies but of “leaning across a table staring into Ernest Hemingway’s eyes” (LDD 93).

It is significant that Rhoda is reading a Hemingway novel during the time of her ordeal, not only because of her inability to gain insight about herself from her experiences but also because of her attitude toward pregnancy, which she would find corroborated in Hemingway’s fiction. Debra A. Moddelmog traces Hemingway’s depiction of pregnancy and childbirth throughout In Our Time and concludes that “nowhere … are the joys of pregnancy and young children described. Whenever mentioned, children and having babies are associated with suffering, unhappiness, an end of freedom and innocence, even death” (“Unifying” 28). More recently, Nancy R. Comley and Robert Scholes have discussed the “number of [Hemingway’s] finest early stories [with] a male protagonist … who resists fatherhood in one way or another” (13), the reason being, they argue, that “evidence in the larger Hemingway Text indicated that to father a son is to write your own death warrant” (15). With this characteristic of Hemingway’s fiction in mind, one can see that, after her abortion and because of the memory of her first bloody pregnancy, Rhoda might find in Hemingway’s books validation of the rightness of her choice to terminate her pregnancy.

It is also particularly appropriate that the Hemingway novel Rhoda is reading is Across the River and into the Trees, in which, as Richard B. Hovey puts it, “Hemingway … takes us into the dream world of adolescence” (179). Surprisingly, given this assessment, Across the River and into the Trees is a novel about an aging and dying American colonel who has never grown up—and neither will Rhoda have matured by the time she has reached the colonel’s age (in Gilchrist’s “Mexico” of Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle, in the preface and coda to her novel Net of Jewels, and in “A Statue of Aphrodite” of The Age of Miracles). Certainly her lightheartedness about having an abortion reflects her current immaturity. At the end of “1957, a Romance,” looking at herself in a mirror, Rhoda exults in her appearance in her new bathing suit and laughs “clear abandoned laughter … at the wild excited face in the bright mirror” (LDD 95). One could use Joseph DeFalco’s description of the final view of Nick given in “Indian Camp” to describe Rhoda’s attitude here: “infantile optimism” (49). There is no mention of either any guilt for her actions or plans to divorce the husband whom she has described as being such a dangerous bully. Rather, she luxuriates in the false sense of freedom that the abortion has given her and responds with generous goodwill to the members of her family gathered for Fourth of July festivities.

In another Rhoda story in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, “Perils of the Nile,” Rhoda is given another chance to learn a truth about life but rejects it by turning to one of humanity’s sources of comfort: religion. Upon losing her new ring, Rhoda prays for its recovery—although “usually Rhoda wasn’t much on praying” (LDD 133). She has earlier in her life associated religion with death and thus has not found the comfort in it that others do:

When she said her prayers at night all she thought about was Jesus coming to get her in a chariot filled with angels. She didn’t want Jesus to come get her. She didn’t want to be lying in a box like Jerry Hollister, who was run over in his driveway. …

Rhoda didn’t want anything to do with that. She didn’t want anything to do with Jesus or religion or little boys lying on their dining room tables with their eyes closed.

… She didn’t want anything to do with God and Jesus and dead people and people nailed up on crosses or eaten by lions or tortured by Romans.

(LDD 133–34)

Rhoda is apparently repelled by the violence that has been directed historically toward those who profess to be Christians, and she has associated this violence with the death of her young friend. However, faced with personal “tragedy” (the loss of her ring), she seeks the comfort that faith provides—or at least the sense that she is doing something, praying in this case, toward rectifying the disagreeable situation. Therefore, as do many people—like her father in “1957, a Romance” and like the soldier (who might be Nick Adams) in the vignette of chapter 7 of In Our Time—Rhoda makes a deal with God: “If you will get it back to me I promise I’ll start believing in you. … If you’ll help me find it I’ll be nice to everyone from now on. … I’ll quit lying so much. … I’ll do everything you want from now on. I’ll even go overseas and be a missionary if that’s what you want” (LDD 134–35).

Not only are such deals with God too common for the reader to entertain the idea that Rhoda will keep her promises after Bebber brings the ring back, but Rhoda also undermines her promise immediately by getting caught up in another egocentric fantasy, which she builds around the thought of herself as a missionary: “She could see herself standing on a distant seashore handing out bright fabrics to the childlike natives. Rhoda was beginning to feel quite holy. She was beginning to like talking to Jesus” (LDD 135). She concludes her prayer, then, by lying about her devotion and qualifying it at the same time: “To tell the truth I have always believed in you. And I’ll be going to Sunday school all the time now if I get my ring back” (LDD 135, emphasis added). She is comforted by her prayer, since she has placed the responsibility for finding the ring in someone else’s hands, and she is distracted from her misfortune by her fantasies. Since the reader knows by story’s end that Rhoda’s ring will be returned, one can see that once again Rhoda has evaded a harsh truth about life: that things do not always go one’s way.

In the Hemingway vignette just mentioned, the soldier prays, “Dear jesus please get me out. Christ please please please christ. If you’ll only keep me from getting killed I’ll do anything you say. I believe in you and I’ll tell every one in the world that you are the only one that matters. Please please dear jesus” (IOT 67). Like Rhoda’s, the soldier’s prayer is “answered”: he is not killed. Using In Our Time as an intertext of In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, one can find in the soldier’s actions support for the argument that Rhoda does not follow through on her promises to God: “The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with at the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody” (67). If this young man’s life has been spared and yet he fails to live up to his end of the bargain he made with God, then it is not difficult to surmise that Rhoda, too, who was never in such real danger, will not feel compelled to hold up her end of her bargain.

Although their situations are so completely different, one is reminded by the comparable response to “crisis” of the similarities between the prototypes, a result, perhaps, of the Gilchrist character’s Hemingway-like father, who has had such a strong influence upon the development of his daughter’s personality. Indeed, one might recall Dudley Manning’s own bargain with God in “1957, a Romance.” Rhoda resists her father’s influence in the story “Music” in Victory over Japan, in which her father takes her on a trip to get her to stop smoking, to be more respectful to her parents, and to calm her overall demeanor and behavior. Furthermore, during their journey he tries to impress upon her an appreciation of the beauty and wonder of God’s world; but Rhoda does not share her father’s values. She does not believe in God and resists her father’s attempts to force his cosmic view on her as much as she resists his social view. She is frustrated in her inability to support her theories of evolution against her father’s creation theories and strikes out at him by trying to get another man’s approval and thus a man’s validation of her worth—the consequence of which is the loss of her virginity.

Like the Nick Adams story “Ten Indians” in Men without Women, “Music” centers on the protagonist’s relationship with her father as well as her first sexual experience. However, in contrast, whereas Dr. Adams comforts Nick after his Indian girlfriend has been seen with another boy, Mr. Manning’s harsh treatment of Rhoda drives her to her sexual encounter with a stranger. This time, the comparison has led to an analysis of the point of its ceasing, for the men react quite differently to their children’s bittersweet introductions to sex. It should not be surprising that, while the young man’s father would not be too upset by his son’s emerging sexuality and thus can concentrate on his son’s feelings about being cuckolded by his “first love,” the young woman’s father is so distressed by the idea of his daughter as a sexual being that he does not consider her probably tumultuous emotions after her sexual encounter as he rages about her affair.

“Music” also recalls the earlier Hemingway story “Indian Camp” in that both stories begin with the protagonist and his or her father setting off on a journey, during which the protagonist is initiated into adulthood: Nick observes both birth and death, and Rhoda participates in sexual relations. In “Indian Camp,” the characterization of Dr. Adams is much less positive than in “Ten Indians”: he is less nurturing of Nick, determined as he is to “make a man of” his son. In his reading of “Indian Camp,” Kenneth Johnston argues that

Nick’s father must bear much of the blame for the failure of the initiation. In his attempt to educate Nick in the facts of life—the lesson will get out of hand and will include the facts of death, too—he thrusts his son into a situation, brutal and shocking, from which he can not escape. … As one recalls, the journey began with Dr. Adams’ protecting Nick from the cold world with his cradling arm and his euphemistic language. Actually, Dr. Adams is not well prepared for his dual role of medicine man and moral guide.


Comparably, one realizes that in “Music” Rhoda’s father takes her to the site of her deflowering. This turn of events becomes even more ironic when one realizes that, as Nick’s father intended to make a man out of his son, Rhoda’s father’s intention upon deciding to take her on this trip with him was to make her behave more in line with his concept of a young lady. Johnston’s assessment of Nick’s experience in “Indian Camp” can be applied to Rhoda’s experience in “Music”: “The initiation has miscarried. Nick Adams has not been matured by the experience; rather, he has regressed toward childhood, comforted by an illusion which the events of the night should have destroyed” (51). After Rhoda’s sexual encounter, she is seen lost in a fantasy in which some young man—either her current love interest back home or the young man who has just used her or the pilot who is, while Rhoda is fantasizing, flying her back home—stands at a bookstore window in which he sees her latest book, which is dedicated to him. In her fantasy, he is “crying and broken-hearted because Rhoda was lost to him forever, this famous author, who could have been his, lost to him forever” (VJ 50).

“Music” ends years later when Rhoda receives a letter from her father saying, “Take my name off that book. … Imagine a girl with your advantages writing a book like that. Your mother is so ashamed of you” (VJ 51). Like Nick Adams, Rhoda has become a writer. But a more interesting parallel between this Rhoda story and Hemingway himself can be found in Philip Young’s report of Hemingway’s father returning six copies of in our time (an earlier version of In Our Time) to his son. Young quotes Hemingway as saying that his own father “would not tolerate such filth in his home” (18). Young continues on the subject of Hemingway’s father: “Later on when his son was becoming famous he is known to have answered sadly the question of how the boy was making out: ‘Ernest’s written another dirty book’” (18). I will leave it to the Hemingway scholars to analyze his father’s influence upon his life, work, and apparently his death. Turning to Gilchrist, then, the reader will find that she, too, has commented outside her fiction upon her relationship with her own father: “There is an old gorgeous man living right here in Jackson, Mississippi, that I have been loving and fighting with and showing off for since I was born. … My father” (FS 155). Gilchrist’s conflict with her father has influenced much of her fiction. Since this is not a biographical study, a discussion of the influence of this relationship upon her life is not appropriate, though I will add that she suggests in the same journal entry that the conflict is resolving itself—“My father and I have almost stopped arguing now that he is seventy-seven and I am fifty-one” (FS 155)—given its apparent effect on her writing. She has since allowed her prototype to experience a similar beginning of the end of her conflict with her father. In the first story of The Age of Miracles, “A Statue of Aphrodite,” a “pushing sixty”-year-old Rhoda, who introduces herself as an established writer, explains that she decided to move to Jackson some years back (when she was around fifty) “to make my peace with my old man. ‘The finest man I’ve ever known,’ as I wrote in the dedication to a book of poems [which explains how his name got on her book, as indicated by the lines quoted from “Music”]. I don’t think he ever read them” (AM 3). Even while perceiving the possibility of resolution, then, the reader is reminded of the earlier story, which suggests in turn that at some level the conflict will always be present. She can forgive and learn to get along with her father, but how can she forget his earlier rejection of her work?

Although several of Hemingway’s stories do focus on father-son relationships, Richard Hovey notes that it is Hemingway’s mother characters who “regularly appear as domineering over their families; as destroyers, actual or potential, of their children; as champions of respectability and defenders of cruel sentimentalities and false values” (43)—all of which roles are demonstrated in “Soldier’s Home” of In Our Time and “A Canary for One” and “Now I Lay Me” of Men without Women. He calls the fathers “weak … men on whom sons dare not wholly rely” (43), as is also demonstrated in “Soldier’s Home” and “Now I Lay Me,” as well as in “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” and “My Old Man” of In Our Time. It is not surprising that a male author (Hemingway) would portray sons set against domineering mothers while a female author (Gilchrist) would portray daughters set against domineering fathers. Besides Rhoda, whose tumultuous relationship with her father is the central conflict of “1957, a Romance,” “Music,” and the novel Net of Jewels, Gilchrist’s Anna Hand has a domineering father whom she loves and fights her whole life. Neither Gilchrist’s female protagonists nor Hemingway’s male protagonists receive much help from the parent of their own sex in their battles against the will of the other parent. Most of the mothers in Gilchrist’s fiction support the patriarchy, as in “Revenge,” accept its double standards, as in “A Wedding in Jackson”; and do not understand their daughters who struggle for independence, as in “1957, a Romance.”

As the fathers in Hemingway’s fiction are often employed as negative examples of dealing with confrontation, Gilchrist’s mother-characters are certainly not role models for their daughters. Indeed, Gilchrist’s little girls and young women have as much difficulty with their mothers as do Hemingway’s boys and young men (though, again, these are not likely to be central conflicts in their lives as their mothers are easily ignored). These Hemingway and Gilchrist mothers are products of similar environments, the same environment that is trying to turn Gilchrist’s characters into their mothers—and these girls and young women do not find their mothers any more likable than Nick or Krebs find theirs. Once the nature of the mother-daughter relationship is recognized, Rhoda’s choice of parent—her father—to turn to for help with her abortion is less surprising. Rhoda knows who has the power in her society. Therefore, the reader should not be surprised to find that, like Nick Adams and Joe Butler, Gilchrist’s young girl characters have more significant relationships with their fathers than with their mothers. Their fathers may not have the best characters, but they are more positive role models than their weak mothers.

Neither Hemingway nor Gilchrist heeds chronology in telling his or her prototype’s story, although in In Our Time the stories are arranged almost chronologically. The first four Nick Adams stories proceed in order from his childhood to his adolescence. The vignette of chapter 6, which takes place in the middle of battle, is the next time Nick is mentioned by name; and then the last two Nick Adams stories occur after the war. Similarly, in Gilchrist’s second collection, Victory over Japan, the reader is given one story each, from Rhoda’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. However, in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, Gilchrist ignores chronology entirely in her arrangement of the Rhoda stories, introducing Rhoda in this first collection at the age of nineteen in “1957, a Romance,” then portraying in the story “Revenge” a ten-year-old Rhoda. In the third Rhoda story, entitled “1944,”she is eight, and in the last Rhoda story in this collection, “Perils of the Nile,” she is twelve. Thus, Gilchrist has arranged the Rhoda Manning stories in her first collection more like Hemingway’s arrangement of the Nick Adams stories in Men without Women, where Nick first appears as a soldier, then as a younger man, the next time as an adolescent, and finally as a soldier again (counting only the stories that refer to the protagonist by the name Nick Adams).

Noting the connection to this later Hemingway collection may lead one to ponder its significance and realize that many of the Rhoda stories in one way or another focus on “women without men.” Although Rhoda’s father plays a significant role in “1957, a Romance,” she herself has left her husband; furthermore, she has made her decision to have an abortion without consulting him. In “Revenge” and “1944,” Rhoda experiences and witnesses, respectively, part of the effects of her country’s involvement in a world war: men like her father had to leave their families for a while, and their families had to get along without them during this period; some of these men, husbands of people she knew, did not return after the war was over, and their wives had to learn to get along without them forever. On the other hand, as these Gilchrist stories reveal, even in these situations of “women without men,” the influence of the patriarchy continues. In “Revenge,” for example, Rhoda’s father writes to his son from Europe, where he is serving during World War II, “to take good care of [Rhoda] as [she] was [her] father’s own dear sweet little girl” (LDD 112). Rhoda’s brother, Dudley, Jr., interprets the letter to mean that Rhoda is not to participate in their “Olympic training” in spite of the fact that the Rhoda he is in conflict with throughout the story is no “dear sweet little girl.” Surprisingly, no one on the plantation overrides young Dudley’s edict that “this is only for boys” (LDD 112), even though Rhoda’s grandmother is the voice of authority on the place at this time. Rather than admonish the boys for excluding Rhoda from their games and force them to let her play, their grandmother and the housekeeper suggest to Rhoda other forms of amusement that are more suitable for girls: playing with a little girl at a neighboring plantation and learning to dance.


Tom and Letty Wilson were rich in everything. They were rich in friends because Tom was a vice-president of the Whitney Bank of New Orleans and liked doing business with his friends, and because Letty was vice-president of the Junior League of New Orleans and had her picture in Town and Country every year at the Symphony Ball.

The Wilsons were rich in knowing exactly who they were because every year from Epiphany to Fat Tuesday they flew the beautiful green and gold and purple flag outside their house that meant that Letty had been queen of the Mardi Gras the year she was a debutante. Not that Letty was foolish enough to take the flag seriously.

(LDD 3)

This passage, from Gilchrist’s “Rich,” unmistakably echoes the tone of the opening of Hemingway’s “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot”:

Mr. and Mrs. Elliot tried very hard to have a baby. They tried as often as Mrs. Elliot could stand it. They tried in Boston after they were married and they tried coming over on the boat. They did not try very often on the boat because Mrs. Elliot was quite sick. She was sick and when she was sick she was sick as Southern women are sick. That is women from the Southern part of the United States. Like all Southern women Mrs. Elliot disintegrated very quickly under sea sickness.

(IOT 85)

Regarding the content of the Hemingway passage and the two stories as a whole, there are parallels as well. Both couples are southern, and the Wilsons have difficulty conceiving, too. In point of contrast, Gilchrist’s female character is not a stereotypical swooning southern lady. In the course of this story she will withstand several tragedies, including the violent deaths of two of her children and her husband. Echoing the tone of this particular Hemingway story—reputed to be Hemingway’s way of parodying T. S. Eliot, whom he supposedly did not consider much of a “man”—Gilchrist calls attention from the very first story in her first book of fiction to one of the accomplishments of her writing: her parodying and thereby re-visioning of Hemingway’s depiction of women.

Gilchrist echoes “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot” again in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams within the story “Suicides.” Comparing these stories, one finds that the two authors are more sympathetic toward the character of their own sex: Hemingway toward Mr. Elliot (even as he employs the character to mock the “unmanly man”), Gilchrist toward Janet Treadway. In both stories, a person of the opposite sex to these two characters intrudes upon the marriage: Mrs. Elliot’s girlfriend and Philip Treadway’s dead brother. Finally, in both stories a baby is seen as an answer to the couples’ problems—but fails to be so: the Elliots are unsuccessful in their attempts to have a baby; Philip and Janet do have one, but, if anything, the baby serves to loosen further Philip’s tenuous hold on his sanity. Given these parallels and Philip’s suicide, Gilchrist’s story seems once again to deconstruct Hemingway’s promulgation, in his fiction and his life, of escaping life’s “pressures” via any means necessary, even suicide if that is the only way. Indeed, Gilchrist emphasizes with her character’s death that there is sometimes nothing “graceful” about suicide.

In contrast, in her story “Indignities,” also in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, Gilchrist seems to suggest that the Hemingway code of grace under pressure might in some situations be put to good use. In this story, too, she introduces a motif that will recur throughout her canon: cancer. Once characters are struck with the disease or face it in a loved one, the focus of their story is on their reactions, the grace and courage with which they deal with the situation. One might compare Gilchrist’s development of this conflict with the recurrent war wounds suffered by Hemingway’s protagonists and his focus on how each man deals with the wound. However, although Gilchrist may make incredible heroes out of her cancer victims, she never romanticizes the disease the way that Hemingway romanticizes war. The victim of cancer in this story has just had a mastectomy when “Indignities” opens, and she dies before its close.

I mentioned previously the role of cancer in The Anna Papers as a much more real threat than the waiter’s fear of the dark in Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Another parallel with Hemingway can be found in this novel. Like Hemingway, Gilchrist identifies very closely with her protagonists, and both writers often have their protagonists be writers. Speaking through the thoughts of his prototype in “On Writing,” a Nick Adams sketch that at one time concluded “Big Two-Hearted River,” Hemingway explains how he transforms fact into fiction: “Of course he’d never seen an Indian woman having a baby. … He’d seen a woman have a baby on the road to Karagatch and tried to help her. That was the way it was” (NAS 238). Gilchrist, too, speaks through a character to explain how she transforms fact into fiction. In The Anna Papers, Anna tells her lover that he has inspired her to write a love story and that he will “be in it” (AP 112). However, she explains, she will transform him into “a Chinese graduate student who meets a girl at dawn on a bridge” (AP 112). The story she is planning here appears in Gilchrist’s next book of fiction, Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle. Also like Nick when he refers in his thoughts to Hemingway’s “Indian Camp,” Anna claims her creator’s work as her own when she describes two other stories she will write, both of which appear in Gilchrist’s collection of novellas, I Cannot Get You Close Enough.

Indeed, Gilchrist’s fiction is becoming increasingly metafictional in this way. Net of Jewels begins with Rhoda introducing herself to the reader, comparing herself to Anna (“I’m not a great writer like my cousin Anna Hand, but I’m not bad either” [NJ 3]), and explaining how the novel came to be: “I meant this as a book of short stories and I started writing it that way. Then the stories started to bleed into each other and I decided to go on and let them bleed” (NJ 3). This explanation seems to sum up how Gilchrist’s organic story cycle developed. Other metafictional instances of this type can be found in the Rhoda stories of The Age of Miracles. In “A Wedding in Jackson,” Rhoda remarks that she “once killed a character in a novel on that road” and later “brought him back to life in a short story” (AM 37), which events can be found in Gilchrist’s The Annunciation and one of its sequel short stories in Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle. In “Joyce” (also in The Age of Miracles), she tells about the acceptance of her first stories for publication in Prairie Schooner and Intro, magazines in which Gilchrist also published early stories.

While the metafictional elements in Gilchrist’s fiction remind the reader of her kinship with Hemingway—like him, she has difficulty divorcing her own ego from her fiction—two of the most interesting allusions to Hemingway in Gilchrist’s fiction (in the short story “Traceleen, She’s Still Talking” in Victory over Japan and in the novella “Mexico” in Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle) illuminate, perhaps best, how Gilchrist ultimately questions this model. In her essay on intertextual readings for Patrick O’Donnell and Robert Con Davis’s Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction, Thaïs Morgan argues that Julia Kristeva’s “most valuable contribution to the debate on intertextuality” is “the idea that an intertextual citation is never innocent or direct, but always transformed, distorted, displaced, condensed, or edited in some way in order to suit the speaking subject’s value system” (Morgan 260, emphasis added). Reading Gilchrist intertextually with Hemingway, for example, shows how Gilchrist has both “transformed” Hemingway’s masculine prototype into a quite feminine character type and “distorted” the reader’s perception of the original Hemingway hero by refocusing the reader’s attention onto the effects of the ultramacho character’s actions upon the women around him. In the characterization of Rhoda, the prototype for all of Gilchrist’s protagonists, the small detail that Hemingway is her favorite writer illuminates what is perhaps the central conflict for all of Gilchrist’s female characters, most particularly Rhoda and her cousin Crystal. They have been raised by and alongside and are repeatedly attracted to men who would qualify as Hemingway heroes. Consequently, these women follow the examples of their fathers, brothers, and other male relatives to become Hemingway heroes themselves—“they can wisecrack and drink as hard as their male counterparts,” as one reviewer says of Gilchrist’s “New South heroines” (Carper 5)—while at the same time they strive to be less strong-willed and more dependent in order to be the kind of woman such men would find appealing. Their personalities are unable to reconcile with their desires, and therein lies the conflict of many of Gilchrist’s stories.

Returning briefly to “Perils of the Nile,” for example, one realizes that although Bebber Dyson seems to admire Rhoda’s unique and brazen personality, he is more attracted to her soft-spoken, less self-centered mother: “Bebber thought about Rhoda’s mother a lot. She was very beautiful and had looked straight at him out of sad blue eyes while he talked about himself” (LDD 131, emphasis added). Consequently, in spite of the anguish he knows Rhoda is experiencing over the loss of her ring, he withholds it from her to present it to her mother.

“Traceleen, She’s Still Talking” reaches its climax during a parody of a Hemingwayesque safari, a sport Hemingway expects his reader to accept as a serious test of “manhood.” Crystal’s brother Phelan imports wild game from various countries and sets up “safaris” on his Texas ranch for businessmen too busy to go to Africa. In the course of the narration of this hilarious story, Gilchrist mocks the safaris in Hemingway’s stories by emphasizing their falseness. One of the characters explains the way Phelan’s “safari” works:

“Now the boys will let ’em wait a while and get all hot and bothered. Then they’ll let one of the boars go. … Then Mr. Phelan’ll let somebody shoot and he’ll shoot too in case they miss and then they’ll keep letting them loose till everybody that paid gets to shoot one. Then they’ll be through and Rainey’ll put the boars in a tarp and take them off to be stuffed unless somebody wants to drive home with it tied to the hood of the jeep.”

(VJ 270)

The reader might remember from Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” the safari guide’s various thoughts alluding to how the African safaris are similarly set up. Part of his job, too, is to back up the shooting of the paying participants, and there are natives on hand to take care of the kill for them. The description of the safari in Gilchrist’s story also reminds the reader that although Francis Macomber supposedly finally behaves courageously when he hunts the buffalo, Robert Wilson was there to back him up. Thus, Gilchrist’s story is not as much of a parody as it at first seems, recognition of which undermines Francis Macomber’s achievement of “manhood” before his death.

In Gilchrist’s story, no one is killed or even hurt and, not surprising, Gilchrist’s female character is much more sympathetically drawn. Crystal’s conflict with her macho brother does not end in her shooting him in order to maintain the power in their relationship. Indeed, she has no such power; their conflict, in fact, involves her desire to share power with him: to be allowed to control her half of their inheritance so that all of it is not thrown away on such schemes as this one. Instead of killing him, then, she drives his Mercedes Benz, only just imported from Germany, right into the middle of the set-up chase for a boar and then into the cages where other “wild” animals are kept. Here again, Gilchrist reminds the reader of the Hemingway story and undermines its protagonist’s development, for Francis begins shooting at the buffalo from their car. Beneath this parody—or perhaps comic deconstruction—of Hemingway is a serious complaint against the macho hero he lauded, for this is the type of man Crystal grew up with and keeps marrying, according to the other Crystal stories of Victory over Japan,Drunk with Love,The Age of Miracles, and the novella “Summer in Maine” in I Cannot Get You Close Enough. Crystal is repeatedly hurt by such men. Unlike Amanda and Anna, Crystal does not develop beyond Rhoda in recognition of her abilities and in utilization of them for purposes other than attracting a man’s attention.

Rhoda, the reader of Hemingway, not only finds herself confronted time and again with this same type of man but also admires such men. She marries her first husband because of his physical appeal to her, and in “Mexico,” which takes place when she is fifty-three, she is still measuring her own value according to the opinions held of her by macho men. Even more Hemingwayesque than Rhoda’s brother and cousin in this story is Rhoda’s behavior at a bullfight. Her repeated reference to bull-fighting as “Death in the Afternoon” reflects her consciousness of her chance, finally, to live a Hemingway novel—as she dreamed of doing in “1957, a Romance” when she fell asleep after reading Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees. At the bullfight in Mexico, she, like Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, attracts the attention of a young matador. She does not, however, possess the same scruples that keep Brett from continuing her affair and thus “ruining” the bullfighter’s career. In order to keep Rhoda from her rendezvous, her brother and cousin must ply her with alcohol all afternoon so that she is too drunk to meet the young man. It is not that they are concerned with the bullfighter’s career either, however. Rather, they are worried about Rhoda’s meeting and having an affair with a strange Mexican. In this story, as in the Crystal story, then, Gilchrist finally mocks not safaris and bullfights but bored Americans—like Hemingway’s heroes—who are chasing after such thrills because of their own empty lives.

Returning to In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, one finds, in the story “There’s a Garden of Eden,” another character seeking adventure to fill the boredom of her seemingly Edenic life: “Scores of men, including an ex-governor and the owner of a football team, consider Alisha Terrebone to be the most beautiful woman in the state of Louisiana. If she is unhappy what hope is there for ordinary mortals? Yet here is Alisha, cold and bored and lonely, smoking in bed” (LDD 38). The narrator’s tone is clearly ironic, mocking those who presume that a beautiful, wealthy woman is without problems. But Alisha is dissatisfied with her empty life, not content to be a trophy wife or sex object. She longs for love, not just lovers, and her beauty and wealth apparently attract the wrong men.

The image of Alisha presented in this opening, together with the pouring rain outside, which emphasizes her entrapment, might call to mind the young woman in Hemingway’s “Cat in the Rain.” Alisha’s story, then, provides the reader another focus on Hemingway’s female character, a more fully developed view of the inner turmoil of this whiny woman who is seemingly close to becoming hysterical over a wet cat. Although this is one of Hemingway’s more sympathetic depictions of women, his central concern is still the consequences of World War I. The woman’s husband is apparently another member of the Lost Generation who is unable to face returning to the United States and starting a home and family.

To be fair, Hemingway does show in this story the consequential suffering of the veteran’s wife as she must wander around with this man to whom she is committed. But reading the two stories together, one realizes more fully the woman’s entrapment. As a middle-class American woman, she has been raised to one occupation, homemaker. Her value system and sense of social order has not been upset by firsthand experiences of a world war, so how is she to understand her husband’s refusal to allow her to fulfill her role in life? And, given the time difference between this story and Alisha’s, one realizes that she doesn’t even really have the option, which Alisha has exercised repeatedly, of divorcing her husband in hopes of finding a more satisfying relationship.

Returning to Gilchrist’s story, however, one realizes that although Alisha’s options seem to be more open than this woman’s, her chances of fulfillment are not much better. She has had three disappointing marriages. Consequently, she has since insulated herself within her home, choosing tedium over the hurt of disappointment, until the day she takes a risk by having an affair with a young carpenter whom she has called to do some repairs around her home. Sexual relations with this man, whose occupation recalls that of Christ, seem to give Alisha new life, just when she “was going to stop dying [her] hair” (LDD 47)—that is, just when she was going to resign herself to old age. But his role in the story as an apparent savior is undermined by an earlier exchange between Alisha and her maid. When the maid reports that the carpenter has arrived, Alisha asks, “Which carpenter?” (LDD 39). The maid’s answer, “Now it’s going to be blue-collar workers,” suggests that she knows why Alisha is asking—because Alisha will get up and dress to speak with the carpenter if he is “the young one”—and that this is not the first time that Alisha has taken a lover so spontaneously (LDD 39). The probability of other impulsive affairs deflates Alisha’s later romantic idealizing of her affair with the carpenter. Looking back into the story provides a second point compromising its seemingly optimistic ending. Alisha’s and her lover’s thoughts reveal that they both fantasize during their lovemaking; thus, they are not making love to each other but rather to ideas they have of each other, and they are simultaneously creating false images of themselves: “Then Alisha closed her eyes and pretended she was an Indian princess lying in a tent deep in a forest, dressed in a long white deerskin robe, waiting for Jeff Chandler to come and claim her for his bride. … Then Michael closed his eyes and pretended he was a millionaire going to bed with a beautiful, sad old actress” (LDD 44). Not even Michael, who leads Alisha out of her false paradise at the end of the story, can rescue her if she chooses fantasy over reality. Furthermore, Michael’s potential to be Alisha’s savior is undermined by his desire for wealth, apparent in his fantasy; he seems to want to share Alisha’s lifestyle rather than help her to escape it.

Also calling to mind the young wife of “Cat in the Rain,” Margaret of “Generous Pieces” (and Rhoda in later stories) longs for a real home. Her family, like Hemingway’s couple, moves around a lot. With their most recent move, the stability of Margaret’s life has been further threatened by her friend’s mother, with whom, Margaret has discovered, her father is having an affair. Still, Margaret clings to her father’s promise that “this time we are going to stay put” (LDD 97). She tries “not to think about Christina’s mother … how she leans over my father’s chair handing him things when they have dinner at our house” (LDD 100); she concentrates, rather, on her friendship with Christina and the security it offers of being part of the popular crowd at school (another concern she shares with Rhoda, thus reminding the reader of Gilchrist’s female composite personality).

The story’s climax reveals that Margaret is finally unable to dispel completely her fears that her family, the one constant in her life, will be torn apart by her father’s affair. Walking home late one day, she is chased by a group of boys who throw clods of dirt at her. This somewhat typical incident of boys trying to get a little girl’s attention terrifies Margaret. Even after they are gone, she continues to run, feeling suddenly “afraid of falling down, afraid of every shadow, afraid to look up, afraid of the trees, afraid of the moon” (LDD 101). As is the case for the woman in “Cat in the Rain,” who is unduly upset over not finding the cat she has seen outside her hotel window, the true reason for Margaret’s seemingly exaggerated dismay over having dirt thrown at her by some strange boys is her precarious family life. With the cat, Hemingway’s protagonist could pretend for a while that her hotel room is a home, which, one can see by the list of her desires, is what she really wants: “I want to eat at a table with my own silver and I want candles. … I want to brush my hair out in front of a mirror and I want a kitty” (IOT 94). Similarly, what Margaret is really afraid of is finding herself in another strange place, this time without both of her parents there to protect her. Both the young wife and Margaret are thwarted in their desire for a stable home by a dominating male—the woman’s husband and Margaret’s father.

Such a comparison serves to undermine somewhat Hemingway’s reputation for being misogynous in his characterization of women, for reading “Cat in the Rain” intertextually with “Generous Pieces” can lead to an understanding of Hemingway’s female character’s desires. “Generous Pieces” concludes with no resolution to Margaret’s terror, which is “watching [her] with cold eyes from the mirror on [her] father’s dresser” (LDD 102). This lack of resolution, taken together with the connection between this story and Hemingway’s “Cat in the Rain,” emphasizes the absence of any resolution to that story’s protagonist’s problem: although the woman finally gets the cat, the reader knows that this temporary consolation will not solve her conflict. Thus, reading these works intertextually allows the reader a deeper sympathy for Hemingway’s character than his characterization of her by itself might otherwise elicit.

Reading the two works together also brings up another point of contrast between the two writers—in the role of food in their works. In “Generous Pieces,” Margaret refuses to try on the skirt Mrs. Carver has made for her, not because she is angry with Mrs. Carver for having an affair with her father but because of her own self-consciousness about “how big [her] waist is” (LDD 99). A concern with weight is expressed by several of the characters throughout Gilchrist’s canon, young girls to middle-aged women, who share the composite personality. Eating is, according to Joseph Flora, “an important literary motif in most of the Nick Adams stories,” too (Hemingway’s 161). In contrast to eating in Gilchrist’s fiction, in Hemingway’s it is not associated with guilt. Indeed, in a Hemingway scene involving food, the characters are most often enjoying their meal. Furthermore, Hemingway gives much more leisurely descriptions of the process of preparing meals and eating than does Gilchrist. Her characters are most often driven to food by frustration; thus, they are usually eating in a frenzy, sometimes right out of the refrigerator, as LeLe does in “Traveler” (also in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams).

One notable example of the contrasting role of food in the work of these two authors is that whereas Nick’s father comforts his son with food in “Ten Indians” (MWW 102), Rhoda’s mother insists that Rhoda go on a diet in Net of Jewels (NJ 21). This difference is not so surprising, of course, given the different sexes of their protagonists: Hemingway’s protagonists are usually male and thus not as likely to be concerned about their weight as are Gilchrist’s female protagonists. In this contrast one sees another instance of the double standard for men and women regarding weight, which Gilchrist alludes to directly in “Rich” when Letty Wilson attempts to help her daughter Helen curb her appetite, telling her, “You’re so pretty … we don’t want you to get too fat,” while she says nothing to her husband about his weight gain (LDD 12). In “Traveler,” LeLe’s friend Fielding also mixes a compliment in with his well-intentioned advice about her weight: “You would be a really beautiful girl if you lost ten pounds” (LDD 147). The reader is thoroughly disgusted when he follows this statement up with “I’m only saying this because we’ve gotten to be such good friends” (LDD 147), but sadly, his rude comments do not diminish his appeal to LeLe. Instead of telling him off, she lies to him, offering a medical excuse for her weight: “I’m not really this fat. … I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my thyroid” (LDD 147).

The central plot of “Traveler” involves LeLe’s desire to attract the attention of this young man in spite of his rude comment about her weight. Her attraction to an undeserving male is common in the characters who share the composite personality. LeLe ultimately swims five miles across a lake—quite an endeavor, though it is important to her only in that it involves “a first-rate boy … coming to take [her] somewhere” (LDD 85).

As in “Revenge,” the climax of “Traveler” occurs when LeLe accomplishes this feat thus far allowed only to boys, for when LeLe suggests to Fielding that she swim across the lake with him, her cousin Baby Gwen says, “Girls don’t ever swim across the lake” (LDD 149). In the water, though, LeLe feels empowered, “beautiful,” “perfect,” and thin (LDD 150). Her swim is a baptismal experience, a chance to start over and honestly earn the reputation she has sought via manipulation since arriving in Mississippi. Gilchrist uses water in this and other stories in much the same way that Hemingway does in such stories as “Out of Season” and “Big Two-Hearted River” in In Our Time: as representative of the source of life, of cleansing, rejuvenation, and second chances.

The ending to Hemingway’s “Out of Season” is ambiguous; indeed, the whole story is. Many readers infer from the story’s events that at issue is whether the young gentleman and his wife will have a child or abort their child, much as in “Hills Like White Elephants.” The gentleman’s apparent decision at the story’s end not to fish out of season after all suggests that, just as he will not risk taking the life of a spawning fish, neither will he allow anyone to terminate his wife’s pregnancy (or, if the issue is not abortion but merely whether they should have a child or not, not to do anything that would keep her from conceiving).

Just as “Out of Season” reminds the reader of “Hills Like White Elephants,” but with a more positive, though ambiguous ending, so, too, does “Traveler” remind the reader of “Revenge.” As in “Revenge,” the ending of “Traveler” undermines somewhat the sense of LeLe’s triumph. Although the reader does not know if LeLe’s success remains as important to her as Rhoda’s pole vault does to her (there are no final comments from an older LeLe), clearly it is a profound experience in her life, for she is striving to recall it in detail when the story closes: “I was dreaming of the lake, trying to remember how the water turned into diamonds in my hands” (LDD 153). Like Rhoda’s triumph over gender roles, which the reader understands to be only a momentary one, LeLe’s memory of her achievements is described in terms of illusion—the water as diamonds—which brings the reader back to the reality of LeLe’s life: it is for the most part based on illusions she creates about herself. Consequently, she probably will not sustain the true empowerment she achieved in the water. Indeed, by the end of the story, her travels have come full circle, returning her to Indiana where she continues to tell exaggerated versions of the truth, if not outright lies. One is reminded by this falsely positive ending that Hemingway wrote “Hills Like White Elephants” after “Out of Season.” He, too, seems to have had second thoughts about the positive ending to his earlier story—the young gentleman’s decision to bring a new life into the world. In the later story, the young man is not yet ready for such a responsibility and encourages his lover to abort their baby.

Gilchrist again uses water as a central symbol in the last story of In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. “Summer, an Elegy” ends with Matille staring down into the river, calling to mind one last time the story cycle on which Gilchrist seems to have modeled her own first collection, Hemingway’s In Our Time, which ends with Nick Adams staring into the swamp in “Big Two-Hearted River.” Again, however, one cannot help but notice the differences between the two protagonists. Besides the obvious differences of sex, age, and recent experiences with death there is the distinct contrast in their attitudes toward the futures they are contemplating in these last scenes: Nick’s one-day-at-a-time caution versus Matille’s joie de vivre impatience. Of course this distinction is not surprising given the difference in kind between their recent tragic experiences—Nick has been to war while Matille has merely learned that her playmate/cousin has died—which is exactly why, although Hemingway’s work serves well as a model of the craft of writing the short story and organizing the short story cycle, Gilchrist would have to turn to other writers to find someone simpatico with her subject matter.




Gilchrist, Ellen (Short Story Criticism)