In the Garden of the North American Martyrs Summary
by Tobias Wolff

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” tells the story of Mary, a college professor who has grown increasingly depressed since her longtime employer, Brandon College, closed. At Brandon, Mary made herself as agreeable as possible and rarely expressed her own opinions. Now marooned at an inadequate school in Oregon, Mary is thrilled to be invited by a former colleague, Louise, to apply for a job at Louise’s university in upstate New York. When Mary arrives for her interview, however, Louise’s behavior is unsettling. At the last minute she unexpectedly tells Mary she must give a lecture after her interview. Later, Mary discovers that at least one female candidate must be brought in for every open position. She rightly suspects that she has been misled by Louise into thinking there was a chance for her to get the job. Stunned by the betrayal, she improvises a dramatic lecture that details the tortures inflicted on two Jesuit priests by the Iroquois tribe. Despite protests by the faculty in the audience, Mary turns off her hearing aid as she begins to narrate the religious advice of the dying Jesuit, including the admonition to “turn from power to love.” Her story rebukes the cold brutality of Louise and the hiring committee who invited her for a sham interview. She has finally learned that being agreeable ultimately serves little purpose. Her shocking monologue pushes the genre of the story from realism to parable.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” begins with a summary of Mary’s career, a sort of curriculum vitae establishing her credentials as an uninvolved person: a college history teacher who “watched herself.” Early in her career, she witnessed the firing of “a brilliant and original” professor whose ideas upset the college’s trustees. To diminish the chances of similarly offending, Mary carefully wrote her lectures “out in full” beforehand, “using the arguments and often the words of other, approved writers.” She just as carefully avoided entanglement in departmental politics, the cliques and ongoing quarrels of her colleagues. Instead, Mary adopted the role of a campus character, cultivating little eccentricities and making people groan with her corny jokes, culled from books and records. She was also such a good listener that eventually she had to get a hearing aid.

Thus, Mary’s innocuous career of playing it safe coasted along for fifteen years at Brandon College. Then, suddenly, Brandon College went bankrupt (the result of the business manager’s speculations) and closed. Shocked, Mary was forced into a tight job market. She did get another job, but in a miserable Oregon college housed in one building (apparently a former high school or junior high). Mary found the weather in Oregon equally miserable: The incessant rain troubled her lungs and hearing aid, flooded her basement, and encouraged “toadstools growing behind the refrigerator.” Mary kept applying for jobs elsewhere but received no further offer.

When the story’s main action begins, Mary is in her third year at the Oregon college. One day she receives a surprise letter from Louise, a former Brandon colleague who “had scored a great success with a book on Benedict Arnold and was now on the faculty of a famous college in upstate New York.” Louise says there is an opening in her department and invites Mary to apply for it. Although Mary has never considered Louise to have much “enthusiasm for other people’s causes,” she sends in her application. In rather short order, Louise, chairwoman of the search committee, calls to schedule an on-campus interview for Mary. Mary thinks things are looking good, but as she flies east she cannot get over a strange feeling of déjà vu.

Mary’s feeling intensifies in Syracuse, where Louise meets her at the airport. She even mentions the feeling to Louise, but Louise brushes it aside: “Don’t get serious on me. . . . That’s not your long suit. Just be your funny,...

(The entire section is 2,162 words.)