This collection of short stories is a tribute to the power of the human imagination. Kay Boyle’s understanding of the infinite variety of human nature is extraordinary. Against the background of a multitude of settings, ranging from Central Park in New York to the Austrian Alps, she presents, within the scope of Fifty Stories, sensitive, illuminating, and compelling portraits of youth, mid life and old age; of upper-, middle-, and lower-class life; and of various ethnic groups and nationalities. Although not all of these stories are masterpieces—some are thinner in texture and more slickly conceived than others—a significant percentage of them are. All of them, even the less profoundly felt, reflect the movement of a remarkably perceptive mind and the beat of a warmly compassionate heart. All of them, too, are told in a style which flows with the clarity and enchantment of a mountain stream.
The collection is divided into six groups. The Early Group consists of stories that were written between 1927 and 1934. Three of these stories are particularly noteworthy, not only because of their craftsmanship but also because of the sympathy and understanding expressed in them for the predicament of blacks by a white writer in a pre-Civil Rights America.
“Ben” is a story which describes subtly and powerfully a failure of conscience and imagination. For the affluent grandfather of the narrator, everything has a place in the large Atlantic City house he owns. Although he is not an unkind man and although he has affection for his black servant, he is unable to see him fully as a human being. The most illuminating and painful point in the story occurs when the grandfather, in a routine action which becomes charged with symbolic significance, pigeonholes, in effect, the desires and devotion of his deceased servant. A more distressing failure is reflected in the sudden, brutal conclusion of “Black Boy,” as a result of a misinterpretation of an act of tenderness and love. In “White as Snow,” the dreams of a young black servant girl are crushed by the cruel conventions of a prejudiced society. The primary impact of the story derives from the juxtaposition of the devastating inner pain felt by the girl with her outward casual assertion of a personality and role that white society expects her to assume.
Three other stories in this section, though they are not as impressive, indicate the cosmopolitan range of Boyle’s interests. “Kroy Wen” is an ironic depiction of a motion picture director who prides himself on his artistry and sense of humanity but who, as the title and action make clear, has an inverted sense of reality. “Dear Mr. Walrus” has stylistic charm but asks for too much of a willing suspension of disbelief as it follows the deteriorating fortunes of several members of an affluent family, who sustain themselves on a thinly based literary promise. “Keep Your Pity” is a brilliant story weakened by an ingenious conclusion. The courageous struggle of an elderly, impoverished, aristocratic couple to survive in the south of France on their memory of affluence; a story which evokes humor and pathos. The clever, implausible conclusion of the story, however, tends to draw attention away from the irony of the narrator’s wrongheaded assessment of the protagonists.
Three of the four stories in the Austrian Group, written between 1933 and 1938, are particularly compelling. “Natives Don’t Cry” presents the various attitudes of a wealthy American family to the disappointment experienced by the English girl who has accompanied them on a vacation to Austria as a nurse for the children. The primary effect of the story stems from the reaction of the nurse to her disappointment, which is similar to that of the black servant girl in “White as Snow.” “The White Horses of Vienna” is an extraordinarily complex story with a deceptively smooth plot line. Set against the background of political unrest in Austria during the 1930’s, it illuminates the healing beauty of human love and friendship. “Count Lothar’s Heart” explores the impact of war on a young aristocrat, who returns to his home to find everything changed. The startling revelation of a wartime experience involving beauty and ugliness that haunts him psychically is brilliantly foreshadowed by the symbolic action of the swans of his village with whose beauty and activities he has been obsessed. The least successful of the stories in this group is “Maiden, Maiden.” The psychological basis of this story, which involves the relationship of an English doctor, his mistress, and an Austrian guide, is more superficially and romantically developed than that of “Natives Don’t Cry.”
Two of the four stories in the English Group, which were written between 1935 and 1936, are masterpieces. “Major Alshuster” focuses on the reaction of an American woman to the upper-class English prejudice she encounters when she attempts to rent part of an ancestral estate. The story brilliantly explores the conflict between her attraction to the English owner of the estate and her awareness that the feeling is not reciprocated. The conflict is resolved in the realm of fantasy. Every incident in the story, including what appears to...
(The entire section is 2148 words.)