Ethel Davis Wilson C. M. McLAY

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C. M. McLAY

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ethel Wilson's short story "Mrs. Golightly and the First Convention" concerns a theme popular in these days of women's liberation, the initiation of an ordinary housewife with three children into her society, her movement, within certain defined limits, from innocence to experience, and her achievement of an individual identity. Mrs. Golightly's aim, expressed at a moment of recognition when it seems unattainable, is to be "a woman of the world."… The deliberate simplicity of the theme, the concentration of wish, recognition, and fulfilment within one or two days, the play of contrast and repetition and the surface naivety of the style all contribute to the total effect of a tale which, however slight it may at first appear, has a definite and continuing appeal and makes a serious statement about life.

The essential simplicity of theme and style conceals the sly sophistication of Mrs. Wilson's approach.

In those days when a man said rather importantly, I am going to a convention, someone was quite liable to ask What is a Convention? Everyone seemed to think that they must be quite a good thing, which of course they are….

The tone of the "historical note" and the choice of language in phrases such as "a very good thing" satirize both our desire for information and the vague flatness of our everyday diction. Moreover Mrs. Wilson cleverly turns the argument on us in "which of course they are"; again delightfully vague, the phrase appeals to our own sophistication. Indeed much of our delight in the story follows from our own implication of superiority, just as our enjoyment of Leacock's "My Financial Career" hinges on our dual sympathy with the protagonist as a representative of our own past experience, and our slight contempt for his innocence in the present. Mrs. Wilson shares with Leacock certain qualities of comic style: the apparent naivety, the use of exaggeration and repetition as major features of the structure, the technique of inverting the whole meaning of the sentence in the last two or three words, the surprise climax to the sentences, even perhaps the underlying social comment. But whereas "My Financial Career" and "The Excursion of the Mariposa Belle" may be enjoyed by children of ten or eleven, "Mrs. Golightly and the First Convention," depends for its success upon our knowledge of human relationships and of the complexity of man's experience in a social world. Although the viewpoint is third-person, the initiation of Mrs. Golightly is paralleled in the style by a movement from naivety to sophistication. (p. 52)

Though light in tone, even witty, the story is concerned with a serious theme, as Desmond Pacey notes, with individual isolation and the sense of being "out of place" among the members of one's society. Pacey's later comment on the tales as a whole, that the protagonists "mitigate their sense of loneliness … by firmly attaching themselves to a familiar and beloved environment" is also true to some extent of Mrs. Golightly who makes the world of the convention her place as it is the place of her husband. While Mrs. Wilson preserves her own sense of balance, suggesting the ultimate superficiality of such a society and of the convention mentality, the story is presented sympathetically and implies some level of achievement, the attainment of a real identity, however shallow.

The structure of the story is simple and controlled but not slavish or inflexible. The introduction provides a succinct but telling appraisal of the Golightly couple, and in particular of the character of Tommy as the measure of his wife's ideals. The simple plot of the journey provides a test for Mrs. Golightly's sense of identity; placed in the world of the convention, she is at first anonymous, but her development is swift. The third phase marks the turning-point; while Mrs. Golightly is partially defeated, she has begun to be aware of her potentialities, and in her delight in the scenery of the coast and the strong-bodied seals, she forgets her inhibitions and finds a contact with other members of this society. In the final stage, despite her social error in forgetting Mrs. Gampish, she achieves a certain presence and a tact in handling difficult situations, and ultimately she learns to accept herself as she is, and to enjoy that self. While this basic structure is linear, certain keys or symbols repeating at intervals through the story provide a cyclic rhythm which ties it together thematically, in particular the hat with the quill and the Old-Fashioneds which suggest social sophistication, and the mimosa tree with its counterpart, the seals, which represent the world of nature to which Mrs. Wilson's central characters always turn for rest and re-creation. The story then artfully resolves the disparate concerns of the writer: to capture the slippery essence, to make it "happen" while still disciplining and controlling the material, to appear artless while at the same time capturing with precision and economy the line and contour of life and character. (p. 53)

The story concludes with a moment of recognition. Mrs. Golightly has come to accept her own identity, not as a wife or a mother or a friend: "Mr. Flanagan isn't a bit afraid to be him and Mrs. Gampish isn't a bit afraid to be her and now I'm not a bit afraid to be me … at least, not much."… She can dispense with the symbol, and she cuts off the damaged quill; she no longer needs its assurance, and she can accept its weaknesses, like her own, for what they are. And she recalls the whole day, the mysterious world of the convention, the beauty of the trees and the aid, the waves and the seals, Mrs. Finkel's loveliness and Mrs. Gampish's assurances, and looks ahead with "anticipation … a delicious fear … an unfamiliar pleasure."…

Yet Mrs. Wilson also implies the limitations of her dream, for her new world is a world of surface sophistication only, of busy-ness, of empty promises and social lies, of faceless names and anonymous numbers.

But the tale is not only a light comedy of manners. In the short stories as a whole, Pacey notes, Mrs. Wilson sees nature as both beautiful and menacing, and human beings as "lonely creatures who forever seek, and occasionally find, the comfort and sustaining power of mutual love." "Mrs. Golightly" provides a lighter statement, a counterpoint to this rather tragic vision of "loneliness and love, human vulnerability and tenacity." Here we find a nature beautiful without menace, a desire for release from alienation without the pain. The story provides a comic statement of integration, of the central theme of The Swamp Angel and Hetty Dorval: "No Man is an Island". It represents one pole of Wilson's view of the contemporary world, one possible reaction to this world in comic detachment where the defeats are temporary, almost unreal, and the protagonist triumphs over all obstacles to achieve her aim, limited though it may be. This is the world of Mrs. Golightly's initiation. (p. 55)

C. M. McLay, "The Initiation of Mrs. Golightly," in Journal of Canadian Fiction (reprinted by permission from Journal of Canadian Fiction, 2050 Mackay St., Montreal, Quebec H3G 2J1, Canada), Vol. 1, No. 3, 1972, pp. 53-5.