Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 259
There are several lines of symbolic imagery in the story—references to birds and “winging it” (in lectures), to rain and dryness—but the most important imagery expands on the story’s title by developing parallels between Mary and the two martyrs. The closer Mary gets to Iroquois country, the more she feels a sense of déjà vu. The strained appearance of Louise the hatchet woman reminds Mary of “a description in the book she’d been reading, of how Iroquois warriors gave themselves visions by fasting.” In the lecture room that Mary calls “the Long House” sunlight streams through windows of “stained glass onto the people around her, painting their faces.” Mary is, in effect, being roasted at the stake: “Thick streams of smoke from the young professor’s pipe drifted through a circle of red light at Mary’s feet, turning crimson and twisting like flames.” Like the priest who kept preaching through torture, Mary delivers her lecture; in the words that Mary imagines the priest speaking, time past and time present come together.
Mary herself is perhaps intended as a representative figure of higher education in the United States. In her days of clownish conformity, she became Brandon College’s presiding spirit, “something institutional, like a custom, or a mascot—part of the college’s idea of itself.” Her “martyrdom” is also typical of horror stories about cruel hiring practices in academia. “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” should be on the required reading list of everyone contemplating a career in higher education.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2872
Although relatively unknown as an author, Tobias Wolff has been supported in his writing by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Creative Writing Center at Stanford University, and the Mary Roberts Rinehart Foundation. Winner of the O. Henry Award, Wolff is a graduate of Oxford and Stanford Universities. He was born in Alabama, grew up in Washington State, and now lives in upstate New York. Most of the stories collected in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs originally appeared in magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Antaeus, Mademoiselle, Tri-Quarterly, Encounter, and Vogue. Wolff’s narrative gift is unmistakable; his stories blend satire, tragedy, and dark humor in an unpredictable and memorable style.
No one story stands out as typical, but Wolff’s ability to draw memorable characters does stand out. Although Wolff’s skill is greater in drawing male characters than female, one of his best female characters is the protagonist of the title story. Mary, of “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” is a woman who has compromised her integrity by always playing safe, always keeping her opinions to herself. Over the years as a college teacher of history, she has written out her lectures and carefully espoused only noncontroversial opinions. After the financial failure of the college where she teaches, Mary has to take an undesirable position in a state where the climate is detrimental to her health. A few years later when Louise, a former colleague, invites Mary to return to New York for an interview at an upstate college, Mary anticipates better times.
Wolff subtly develops hints, however, that Louise has merely invited Mary to the interview as a formality. A student’s careless remark confirms Mary’s suspicions that in reality she has no chance for the position. Mary’s realization about the interview prompts her to discard Louise’s paper, which she planned to read because Louise had neglected to tell Mary until the last minute that she would be expected to present a paper. Instead,...
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