(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In the fictions of George P. Elliott, individuals discover the limitations or the wrongness of their beliefs or, at least, the complications in their motives, actions, and relations with the world. Quite often, the reader shares in a character’s embarrassment or horror from a close distance; but at best, the characters come to revelations to which the mind, senses, and emotions all contribute, as do chance and the acts (or meddling) of other humans. Individuals struggle with various forms of pride; social, psychological, and sexual confusions; blinding imprisonment by fixed ideas; and the need for integration in a marketplace of specialists. The characters appear in groups (microcosms) which they belong to blindly or intrude upon with their motives mixed; and the strains operating upon these groups, particularly the families, make concrete universal stresses. Traditional values are never far from mind, although they are likely to be acted upon by doubting and nihilistic characters. When hope springs, it is because the characters’ discoveries mute pride and zeal and unmask insecurities, causing sympathy.

Because, generally, the characters are real and their failures elicit compassion, and the reader is not put off by utter condemnations of humanity or stylistic trivialities, the experience of reading Elliott encourages questing among the mysteries of humans’ nature and the world’s. His message is that the way leads through appearances, complicated by the incompleteness and ambiguity of human communications. What makes the more hopeful visions convincing in their optimism is that they do not exaggerate: They show characters making small adjustments in a style that has been called “cool” and from which irony, satire, and other deflators of pretensions are never distant. The difficulties in reading this work are never great because the storytelling carries one through the complications, and close attention to the characters brings one to feel and see. Elliott called the style which achieves this moral end “formal-seeming, of a certain polish, rather distancing.” He explained his didacticism as depending upon the “complex relationships among storyteller, characters and readers” and an “aesthetic distance,” without which “there is not likely to be much moral clarity.”


In the popular anthology piece “The NRACP,” collected in Among the Dangs, Elliott accomplishes this end by a satirical use of I-narration. Andrew Dixon’s letters imply related and recurrent themes, the ironic disparity between appearance and reality, humans’ inhumanity to humans and their misuse of thought and language to obscure the truth. Set near the present (when Christian morality is thought of as a relic to rid oneself of), the story unfolds a government plot to deal with “the negro problem in America” by exploiting prejudices at work within an apparent democracy. On the surface, the government appears to be relocating blacks, a program that does not upset more than a few dissidents; but in truth, the blacks are to be reprocessed into meat for export and for feeding to the unwitting white bureaucracy. Like Jonathan Swift’s, Elliott’s satire is often painfully lucid.

Andrew Dixon is one of these bureaucrats. His job, he thinks, is to rewrite the interned blacks’ letters before they are sent out. By the time he discovers what is happening, he lacks the moral will to oppose it, and he struggles to put the horror from his mind. The story is chilling, first, because it is not far from other episodes in actual history, and, second, because Andy, although obtuse, is credible and not entirely unscrupulous or inhumane. He represents a middle sort between extremes, an educated Everyman. Elliott’s characters are not simply allegorical, but, like the characters in moralities, they face elemental problems. It takes Andy a long time to see the truth, much longer than it takes the reader; this delay allows the irony to set its roots. To feed the irony, other characters see the truth much sooner but are incapable of acting or are unconcerned. O’Doone’s suspicious nature causes him to bring invisible ink for messages, but when the truth crumbles him, he kills himself. Ruth, a secretary whom Andy marries, may know the truth, but whether she does or not matters little, unbothered, as she is, by moral scruples. Her philosophy excludes their relevance: “There are those who get it and those who dish it out”; and she intends “to be on the side of the dishers.”

What blinds an apparently educated person to the nature of things? The question, implied by a number of Elliot’s stories, could be answered variously; but Andy’s case is representative. Although his reading suggests sophistication—including Swift, Auden, and Joyce—Andy admits that he has never known himself. This may be true, but even if it is, it sounds theatrical; indeed, a large part of his problem is his infatuation with the way he sounds. In the first letter, he enjoys sneering at the place, at those who love reading mysteries, at the black culture. In number two, he enjoys admitting his former ignorance and then congratulates himself on his newfound “largeness of spirit”; he is eating up the rhetoric. By the time Ruth enters, Andy has shown off a large vocabulary; but he has also raised some suspicions about whether he can use language truthfully. When he escalates Ruth’s “dishers” and “getters” maxim into a “post-Christian golden rule” and her tired dig at his love of guilt into “Dostoevskian notions,” he is, indeed, “a balloon” in a “rarefied atmosphere.” Andy, like other characters in this canon, is a sentimentalist, prejudiced against blacks and peers alike and full of the sound of his own voice.

Indicative of Elliott’s wisdom, he does not overwork the obtuseness of the I-narrator but develops Andy’s character, thus complicating judgment by soliciting compassion. This development, is clearly on its way in the eighth letter, when Andy sees the black woman’s yearning for her man and is moved by it. Andy’s rhetoric is still exaggerated (“I have been discovering that the wells of pity, which have lain so long locked and frozen in my eyes, are thawed in me now”); and, in invisibility, he still allows himself to sneer. When however, he says plainly, “I cannot tell you how I pitied both these unhappy people,” he has stopped taking his own pulse and felt for someone else. The last letter shows him splitting dangerously in two. Visibly, over Ruth’s pregnancy, he launches into a cosmic rhetoric that apes Shakespearean flights; but, in invisibility, he recounts O’Doone’s actual and his own contemplated suicide in short, deflated sentences. After the guard’s indictment of his cannibalism, Andy stays invisible, disgusted but desiring to...

(The entire section is 2797 words.)