(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The title story of First Love and Other Sorrows takes place in the springtime when its narrator is sixteen years old and is dealing with a budding sexuality. He lives with his adoptive mother and his twenty-two-year-old sister, who seems as unhappy with her looks as the narrator is with his. She complains that her face is too round and that she does not look good in suits. The brother has peach fuzz and admits to shaving every three days; his mother and sister think he needs to shave more often. His adoptive father is dead.

The boy’s mother warns him against playing too hard and about getting overheated in the springtime. This admonition seems to be a veiled warning that the heat of youthful sexuality can be as dangerous as the heat of April, which is the usual metaphor for youth. The boy certainly seems to feel that such is the case. The sister is dating Sonny Bruster, who, as the son of one of the town’s leading bankers, is a good catch in the eyes of the mother. The romance between the two of them is not without problems; at one point, they stop seeing each other for several weeks. They get back together, however, and are engaged before the story ends.

The boy feels like an intruder in his mother’s house. She makes it clear that she cooks only because he is there; were it only the two women, they would eat sandwiches. The family situation is not a hostile one, but little love is apparent. The mother, a controlling woman, is vitally concerned with having her daughter marry someone prosperous. She had known genteel living in a large house overlooking the Mississippi River, but the house was lost during a financial crisis, and she was reduced to living in more humble surroundings.

The boy’s best friend is a...

(The entire section is 722 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Not a traditionally structured story, “First Love and Other Sorrows” does not confine itself to a strictly focused plot. It is a sentimental education in miniature that captures the feelings of an intelligent but insecure sixteen-year-old boy just beginning to gain insight into the human experience. Rather than plot, the story is constructed out of nuance and discovery.

The story is set in St. Louis, Missouri, during an era when people know their neighbors, listen to radios, send telegrams, go to double features, and know what “zoot-suiters” are. At home, the narrator is almost an outsider. Since his father’s death, his family’s station in life has fallen, and his mother and sister are coconspirators in a search for a suitable husband for the sister. As the story begins, the narrator cannot understand why his mother is so eager that Dodie accept one of the rich boys who court her. He quietly takes his sister’s side when she argues with her mother that she is too young to marry and does not want to stop having a good time. Each time a rich boy is “won,” Dodie rejects him. Gradually, the narrator perceives how his mother’s own craving for wealth and social standing is seeking an outlet in his sister. The mother becomes increasingly anxious at her daughter’s willfulness.

Long enthralled by his sister’s beauty, the narrator finds it difficult to imagine her doing anything wrong. After she breaks a necklace, however, he...

(The entire section is 451 words.)