The Fancy Woman Summary
by Peter Taylor

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The Fancy Woman Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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From the opening sentences, the story portrays a mental state as well as narrating a series of events; this emphasis on subjectivity means that the impact of events is at least as important as the events themselves. The story’s central consciousness, Miss Josephine Carlson, has been invited by her man George to spend a week at his country place, and the sentence fragments and uncertain grammar of her “voice” hint at both anger and anxiety. In this opening scene, the combination of alcohol and sex with Josie’s lack of options in the relationship sets the stage for all that follows. As preposterous as it might seem at the end of the story, this “fancy woman” wonders whether George loves her, whether she might be the social equal of the white Memphis visitors she meets, and whether George is eventually going to marry her. For her, and her only, this is a “love story.”

The narrative is divided into twelve sections, and each section makes it clearer that George, even when absent from the scene, controls all that goes on. For him, love and marriage are not the issues. One should, however, also note the contrasts between day and night: The events of three nights and three days make up the story and give a sense of progression.

Sections 2 through 5 narrate the events of the first morning when only George, Josie, and the servants are present. In this isolation, Josie reveals her insecurity and defensiveness about her respectability and her lack of power with George—she seems to have only passivity or the whiskey bottle; when in section 4 she becomes sick to her stomach and falls off her mount, George laughs mockingly and leaves her. In section 5, her vacillations reveal the full measure of her insecurity and ambition: One moment she rejects him but thinks immediately afterward that “he was lonesome. There was, then, a place to be filled.” The sequence reveals George as a single-minded bully and Josie as a would-be manipulator; because of the doubtful reliability of both these characters, it leaves many elements of their relationship ambiguous.

The heart of the story, sections 6 and 7, introduces the three Memphis couples and narrates the afternoon and evening of wife-swapping and drinking. In Josie’s shock at learning about their organized adulteries, however, there is a positive note of naïveté; her wanting to dance only with George (“because she so liked to dance with him”) and her resolve not to care what the others do make her for a time seem the most genuine person present. Again, Peter Taylor’s narrative seeks to maintain ambiguity, to forestall taking sides or condemning too quickly.

In the eighth section, when Josie concludes the next morning that Mr. Jackson had come to her bed during the night and derives from this conclusion the satisfaction that “they’re none of ’em any better than the niggers. . . . By God, nobody’s better than I am,” the strong but by no means dominant theme of Josie-as-victim begins to fade. Her desire to get even with George by flirting with his seventeen-year-old son Jock changes her image completely. In declaring a suicidal war against George, she shows the worst in herself, seeing the boys as “smutty” sexual creatures, dreaming that Jock tries to enter her room (another man—and this time, significantly, one does not learn who or even if Josie knows who—has already used her). Josie’s confrontation with Buddy, the fourteen-year-old, takes on gothic overtones: This has become a tale of a lone woman in a house of horror, except that the woman has clearly sought the confrontation. Motives even now are not clear, especially Buddy’s motives; the only certainty is George’s imminent violence against her.