Gina Berriault Berriault, Gina (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Gina Berriault 1926-

American short story writer, novelist, and scriptwriter.

Berriault is best known for brief short stories in which she utilizes detached, economical prose to empathetically but unsentimentally portray a wide variety of characters in crisis situations. Unable to enact change on their own behalf or to articulate their feelings of loss, despair, and loneliness, Berriault's protagonists often suffer in isolation. Addressing psychological, emotional, and existential concerns, Berriault's stories frequently examine such subjects as lack of intimacy, reality and illusion, failed familial and sexual relationships, and unrealized expectations. Berriault's stories are collected in The Mistress, and Other Stories (1965), The Infinite Passion of Expectation (1982), and Women in Their Beds (1996), the latter of which won the 1997 Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the 1997 PEN/Faulkner Award.

Biographical Information

Berriault was born in Long Beach, California, to Russian Jewish immigrants. She grew up during the Depression, and her father, who worked as a marble cutter and later as a writer, was not always able to secure employment. Her mother went blind when Berriault was fourteen years old, an event that Berriault has suggested influenced her writing. When Berriault was young, she loved reading books, and she started to write her own stories when she was in grammar school. After graduating from high school, Berriault worked various jobs, including clerk, waitress, and news reporter. She first attracted attention as a writer in 1958 when seven of her stories were collected in Scribner's Short Story 1. Berriault was awarded a fellowship from the Centro Mexicano de Escritores in Mexico City, where she lived and wrote in 1963. During the 1960s, she also wrote articles for Esquire magazine. Berriault has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University and Ohio University and received an appointment as a scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Berriault's first short story collection, The Mistress, and Other Stories, includes fifteen stories, most of which were previously published in magazines. Often set in the San Francisco Bay area in California, the stories examine such subjects as grief, despair, loneliness, and sexual conflict. "The Stone Boy," for example, centers on a nineyear-old boy, Arnold, who ostensibly shows no remorse for accidentally shooting and killing his brother. Because Arnold is unable to show his grief, he is virtually shunned by the community and everyone in his family except his grandfather. "The Diary of K. W." is the story of a sixty-three-year-old woman who has no friends or relatives, is unable to keep a job, and is dying of starvation. Written in diary form over several weeks, K.W.'s musings reveal that she was once married and successful but is now so immobilized by fear, loneliness, and poverty that she is unable to ask for help. Another story in the collection, "Death of a Lesser Man," examines the ambivalence an attractive young woman feels toward her terminally ill, older husband as she contemplates the possibility of taking a lover. The Infinite Passion of Expectation gathers twenty-five pieces written over a span of more than two decades, with twelve of the stories previously appearing in The Mistress, and Other Stories. "Myra" focuses on a young black woman who, passionately in love with her husband, continues to clean, cook, and care for him despite his indifference toward her and her pregnancy. "The Infinite Passion of Expectation," the title of which is taken from a work by Danish philosopher S0ren Kierkegaard, tells the story of a young waitress whose seventy-nine-year-old psychologist asks her to marry him. When she denies his request, he calls her "cold" and tells her "you will never be loved." Women in Their Beds contains thirty-five stories, many of which were first published in magazines and journals. Like her previous collections, this volume focuses on a wide variety of characters and experiences. "Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am?", for example, centers on a dapper librarian who believes a young drifter he has befriended plans to kill him, and "Stolen Pleasures" features a poor young girl who becomes preoccupied with her wealthy friend's piano.

Critical Reception

Berriault's short stories have not received much critical attention, but some commentators speculate that with the publication of the award-winning Women in Their Beds, her work in the genre will begin to generate the wide critical and popular recognition it deserves. The critical reaction Berriault has received, particularly early in her career, has been mixed, with some critics describing Berriault's stories as overly pessimistic and her prose style as too precise and intellectual. Some reviewers have also faulted the brevity of her stories, sometimes negatively referring to them as "miniatures" or "watercolors." Most critics, however, have commended her convincing and unsentimental depiction of the emotional and psychological hardships of her characters. In particular, critics have praised what they have called her amazing range of characters, noting that she is able to convincingly write from both male and female viewpoints and that her characters come from all social, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Despite past ambivalence toward Berriault's work, some critics continue to assert that Berriault's short fiction will become increasingly appreciated and influential. Andre Dubus, for example, has called The Infinite Passion of Expectation "the best book of short stories by a living American author." Similarly, Gary Amdahl has stated that Berriault, "having written so beautifully and so consistently for nearly forty years, ought to be as familiar to us as Toni Morrison and John Updike."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

The Mistress, and Other Stories 1965

The Infinite Passion of Expectation: Twenty-Five Stories 1982

Women in Their Beds: New and Selected Stories 1996

Other Major Works

The Descent (novel) 1960

Conference of Victims (novel) 1962

The Son (novel) 1966

The Lights of Earth (novel) 1984

*The Stone Boy (screenplay) 1984

Afterwards (novel) 1998

*This work is an adaptation of Berriault's short story "The Stone Boy." It was released by Twentieth-Century Fox and starred Robert Duvall and Glenn Close.

Charles Poore (review date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Books of the Times: The Moment of Truth Doesn't Need Stretching," in The New York Times, September 11, 1965, p. 25.

[In the following mixed review of The Mistress, and Other Stories, Poore discusses the length of Berriault's stories and comments on her characterization and originality.]

The trouble with many short stories is that they are too long. Their advertised brevity is inauthentic. A point a reader grasps in two minutes gains nothing by being nested in words for half an hour.

That, I think, is why short story collections, by and large, are said not to sell. There are exceptions, of course, as we all know well. One, in fact,...

(The entire section is 788 words.)

Richard Kostelanetz (review date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Isolation Is the Norm," in New York Times Book Review, September 19, 1965, p. 54.

[In the review of The Mistress, and Other Stories below, Kostelanetz praises Berriault's portrayal of psychological and emotional concerns but faults her prose and depiction of male characters.]

Gina Berriault at her best creates portraits of complex feelings; she is adept at swiftly evolving a convincing character. Her prime virtue is an extraordinary capacity to empathize with a wide variety of isolated people and then to convey in fiction her knowledge of their minds.

As a collection of stories, The Mistress demonstrates the breadth of...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Dorrie Pagones (review date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Foredoomed Failures," in Saturday Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 46, November 13, 1965, pp. 104-05.

[Below, Pagones provides a mixed assessment of The Mistress, and Other Stories.]

Gina Berriault's The Mistress and Other Stories is so good a book that it ought to be better. Reading several of the stories at a time is to be avoided, like looking too long at splendid scenery; one marvels while stifling a yawn. Gina Berriault is a formidably intelligent, observant, and analytical person, but indispensable though these qualities are, they are not enough to give her prose what the landscape lacks—the ordinary breath of life.

For all...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

Belle Pomer (review date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Clean Cuts," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. 46, June, 1966, p. 70.

[In the following evaluation of The Mistress, and Other Stories, Pomer compares Berriault's work to that of American writer Mary McCarthy and praises Berriault's examination of human motivation.]

[The Mistress, and Other Stories] contains a small masterpiece called "Death Of A Lesser Man". Not since [American writer] Mary McCarthy's Ghostly Father, I Confess have I read such a fascinating dissection of a certain aspect of the female personality. The subject of Miss McCarthy's study was the kind of woman who needs to reassure herself constantly by securing the attention...

(The entire section is 365 words.)

Edith Milton (review date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lives That Touch without Intimacy," in New York Times Book Review, January 9, 1983, pp. 28-9.

[In the generally positive review of The Infinite Passion of Expectation below, Milton praises Berriault's focus on characters who are "caught in emotional ambiguities and contradictions," but calls the stories in the collection "oddly cerebral. "]

Gina Berriault has been writing novels and short stories for some 25 years. And the 25 stories collected in The Infinite Passion of Expectation are without exception nearly flawless miniatures in her particular mode. They always descend below the surface of the events and phenomena out of which they are...

(The entire section is 1294 words.)

Gina Berriault with Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver (interview date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with Gina Berriault, in The Literary Review, Vol. 37, No. 4, Summer, 1994, pp. 714-23.

[In the following excerpt from an interview, Berriault discusses such subjects as how she became a writer, contemporary American fiction, her writing style, and the major themes in her works.]

[Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver]: How do you think your childhood reading affected you as a writer?

[Gina Berriault]: That little girl who was me was a restless spirit, confined in a classroom and yearning to be out and roaming, either in the landscape or in her own imagination, and that restlessness was channeled into reading. I read more books than...

(The entire section is 3531 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Women in Their Beds: New and Selected Stories, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 6, February 5, 1996, p. 77.

[In the review below, the critic favorably reviews Women in Their Beds.]

Whether focusing on yuppies or drifters, social workers or Indian restaurateurs, heroin addicts or teenage babysitters, Berriault (The Lights of Earth) writes with great psychological acuity and a compassion that comes always from observation, never from sentimentality. These 35 short stories [Women in Their Beds] have been published in magazines ranging from the Paris Review to Harper's Bazaar, 10 of them are here issued in...

(The entire section is 273 words.)

Tobin Harshaw (review date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Women in Their Beds: New and Selected Stories, in New York Times Book Review, May 5, 1996, p. 22.

[In the following review of Women in Their Beds, Harshaw praises Berriault's imagination but faults her characters' inaction.]

As an alternative to those trivial compendiums of literary opening passages sold near bookstore cash registers, how about a collection of last lines from Gina Berriault's very short stories, [Women in Their Beds: New and Selected Stories]. Consider this stand-alone triumph: "He lay facedown under the tree and bit off some grass near the roots, chewing to distract his smile, but it would not give in,...

(The entire section is 375 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Berriault, Gina. "Almost Impossible." In The Confidence Woman: Twenty-six Women Writers at Work, pp. 127-32. Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1991.

Discusses the nature of writing, focusing in particular on her students' reactions to her short stories.

Additional coverage of Berriault's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 116, 129; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 54; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 130.

(The entire section is 64 words.)