In the Garden of the North American Martyrs Themes

Tobias Wolff

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This story is a wicked satire of American academia, shown here in three of its guises: a college going bankrupt, “a new experimental college in Oregon,” and a pretentious Eastern college that is “an exact copy of a college in England, right down to the gargoyles and stained-glass windows.” None of these colleges inspires confidence in American higher education, nor do the faculty members shown: mousy Mary, tediously copying out her lectures; egotistical Louise, expert on Benedict Arnold; Dr. Howells, native son of Utah, with his “porous blue nose and terrible teeth”; the young professor who talks around the pipe in his mouth; and assorted other members of the faculty menagerie. They are shallow, conventional, and phony, like bad actors in an academic commedia dell’arte, with Louise as stage manager. The only exception is the “brilliant and original” professor who is fired.

If the trustees make an example of the outspoken professor, the author makes an example of Mary, but of the opposite sort: She illustrates what can happen to people who sell themselves out for security. From the professor’s firing, Mary takes warning: “She shared his views, but did not sign the protest petition. She was, after all, on trial herself—as a teacher, as a woman, as an interpreter of history.” The irony of these words reverberates through the story because Mary is a failure in all three respects because of her career of self-censorship. She stifles her own ideas until “without quite disappearing they shrank to remote, nervous points, like birds flying away.” She deliberately molds herself into a faintly ridiculous role until her eccentricities, jokes, and hearing aid qualify her for the ranks of the collegiate grotesques. However, ultimately, Mary’s self-betrayal does not prevent her from being betrayed by her college and by her colleagues, who tend to accept her at face value.

Mary’s betrayal by the system, however, might also be what saves her from it. As a college history teacher, she has denied not only her own authenticity but, ironically, her involvement in history. Her hard knocks, along with the Oregon rain, begin to cleanse her soul, to make her see that even a college campus is not a safe refuge from life. In the story’s remarkable ending, Mary at last finds her own voice via a “brilliant and original” interpretation of history that encompasses herself and the system.


(Short Stories for Students)

Moral Corruption
The inclusion of the word martyr in the title invites readers to consider the themes of moral corruption...

(The entire section is 560 words.)