The Theme of Evil in Williams's Short Story

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1563

“The Girls,” by Joy Williams, is a story in which evil reigns, front and center. The protagonists—the main characters—are cruel and unsympathetic. Their antagonist, Arleen, is the one with whom the reader sympathizes because she is so credibly normal and appears to be vulnerable to the girls’ attacks for much...

(The entire section contains 4948 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this The Girls study guide. You'll get access to all of the The Girls content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
  • Teaching Guide
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

“The Girls,” by Joy Williams, is a story in which evil reigns, front and center. The protagonists—the main characters—are cruel and unsympathetic. Their antagonist, Arleen, is the one with whom the reader sympathizes because she is so credibly normal and appears to be vulnerable to the girls’ attacks for much of the story. The evil within the girls seems outwardly expressed by their cats that kill songbirds in the garden, lounge around the house, and are generally aloof. Arleen’s picking bloodsuckers off the cats at the end of the story is symbolic of her exorcising them of evil. The sudden death of the girls’ mother following Arleen’s pronouncement that the girls are killing her appears to validate what Arleen has said: her daughters are actually toxic.

The girls are born of the evil act generated by their father, who struck a man on the side of the road on a snowy night and kept driving, too eager to pursue his own plans to take care of another person. Grotesquely, the girls delight in this story, as if they were part of some fantastical movie rather than privy to a horrible breach of moral responsibility in their parents’ lives. Daddy’s lack of conscience makes him in essence as evil as his daughters. Although the ways and reasons are never made explicit, Mommy and Daddy have clearly spoiled their daughters and encouraged their dependence. Their emotional development has been stunted, and they behave as if they were half their actual age—sneaky, naughty teenagers, completely absorbed in their own physical beauty and concerned only with what is of interest to them—themselves, their cats, and their parents. Completely narcissistic, the girls believe they are special, important, and do not tolerate their opinions being challenged. They manipulate their parents and try to manipulate the houseguests. They declare that they have never fallen in love and do not intend to marry. Disturbingly, the girls turn their self-absorption toward each other in a kind of twisted self-love. They are inseparable to the extent that they have no individual identity. Williams does not distinguish them (or their cats) with names. They move together, behaving in unison.

Their childish, narcissistic behavior has led them to treat most people around them with cruelty. They insinuate that Arleen should leave by asking her about her home as well as by asking Arleen if she had a nice birthday after telling everyone that they think birthdays are an “idiotic American institution.” The sisters delight in embarrassing Father Snow and Arleen over their house gift of a cocktail shaker. They go searching repeatedly for Arleen’s journal and when they find it, they intend to read it even when Arleen comes upon them. The sisters ask Father Snow about his relationship with Donny, trying to drive him to anger or depression. When that fails, they comment on Donny’s poor teeth and revel in the awkward silence. In an act of ultimate cruelty, the girls reveal their parents’ awful secret about how their father hit a pedestrian with his car the night he proposed to Mommy. Their malice in embarrassing their parents before Father Snow and Arleen with this tale is surpassed in evilness only by their pure delight in the sordid story.

Father Snow represents goodness, although he is blind to evil. His name, Snow, implies purity, and his profession of Episcopal priest also speaks to his righteousness. Strangely, he is not the one who faces off with evil; indeed, he seems unable to recognize it. Although the girls make snide comments directly to Father Snow, he never replies or acknowledges in any way that he has heard these things. He seems to be particularly friendly with Mommy, holding her hand when she is distressed after her daughters tell everyone the terrible family secret of the man Daddy killed over thirty years ago. Father Snow is also the only person to call Mommy by her name, Clarissa. While he is impervious to their evil, he also cannot stop the daughters from hurting others. Father Snow’s immunity to the girls’ cruelty means that he is the only one of Mommy and Daddy’s houseguests who has been able to make a return visit.

Arleen is Father Snow’s companion and advisor as he works through his grief. She is able to follow through where Father Snow cannot. She recognizes the damage the girls are doing to the family and confronts the problem at the end of the story, telling Mommy to get rid of her daughters because they are killing her. While Arleen is unable to save Mommy, Mommy’s sudden death provides Father Snow with the professional distraction he needs to move past his own grief over Donny and care for the newly dead.

Arleen is an antidote to the evil of the girls. The girls do not like Arleen, constantly making fun of her dress and behavior behind her back: “She had very much the manner of someone waiting to be dismissed. The girls loved it.” But Arleen does nothing offensive to them. They are simply too self-absorbed to feel anything except adversarial toward other people. The girls also do not like the thought that their parents are friends with Father Snow and Arleen. But Arleen is helping Mommy as well as Father Snow, diagnosing Mommy’s fading vigor. Although the girls do not recognize what the contents are about, Arleen’s journal describes Mommy’s ailments. The girls have already realized that something is wrong with their parents: Daddy “was sometimes gruff with them as though they were not everything to him! And Mommy’s enchantment with life seemed to be waning.” The reality, as revealed by Arleen and the death of Mommy, is that the girls are predators, just like their cats, and are unable to deny their pets’ temperament: “they were efficient and ruthless and . . . the way in which they so naturally expressed their essential nature was something the girls admired very much.” Given the evidence against the girls, it is perhaps not surprising to the reader that Mommy and Daddy fill their house with guests as often as they can, as a buffer against the poison of their daughters.

When Arleen pulls bloodsuckers off the girls’ cats at the end of the story, she is in effect exorcising them of evil influence. The girls do not believe anything so disgusting could be found on their cats and that Arleen must be making it up. The betrayal of their cats is the kind of variance that the girls cannot tolerate because of their narcissistic certainty that they are more important to their cats than anyone else—that they are, in fact, the center of the universe. In the ancient Egyptian mythos, cats were sacred to the gods and sometimes enacted their vengeance. In the Middle Ages, cats were believed to be companions to witches. In “The Girls,” the cats share a little in both these personas. From the perspective of the girls, the cats are indeed precious and admirable. From Arleen’s perspective, the cats are familiars to the wicked girls. Her plucking of bloodsuckers from their coats is her way of freeing them from the girls.

Mommy was not freed soon enough, however. Her health, especially her heart, is strained by the effort of supporting her narcissistic girls and her manslaughtering husband. “Daddy said that when you look death in the eye, you want to do it as calmly as a stroller looks into a shop window.” This calm—attributable to a lack of conscience, perhaps—pervades Daddy and the girls as well, leaving Mommy to feel everything and to go into death gracelessly.

The irony of Mommy’s death is that although the girls cause it, they probably do not want her dead because she takes care of them. The girls have so much control over their lives, their bodies, their pets, and their parents that they are completely astonished when Mommy falls and dies right at their feet. Neither the girls nor Daddy stands and rushes to Mommy’s side which makes the three of them seem cold by contrast to Arleen and Father Snow (who is not cold and impersonal as his name might imply). Arleen and Father Snow rush to Mommy’s side to hold her head and say the necessary prayers. It is also ironic that just before dying, Mommy is trying to repent for a decades-old sin which was the fault of her husband. She fails to complete her repentance before she collapses.

Evil is a balance for good. Some would even go so far as to describe the relationship between the two as interdependent, assuming without evil, there is no good. Williams provides interest in her short story by making the evil, unsympathetic characters, the girls, the protagonists and the heroine, Arleen, the antagonist. “The Girls,” therefore, is a not-so-classic story about the never-ending struggle between the forces of good and evil. The ending, in terms of this struggle, is ambiguous. Neither good nor evil wins this time. Arleen, fighting for good, still loses Mommy, who is broken down by her daughters’ stronger willpower. The daughters, in siding with evil, have still lost their mother and perhaps gained some skeptics.

Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on “The Girls,” in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Joy Williams Overview

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1827

‘‘I think Joy Williams may be the most ‘relevant’ woman writing at this time,’’ remarked Anatole Broyard in his New York Times review of Williams’s first novel, State of Grace. ‘‘I can’t tell which moves me more: her historical inevitability or her talent.’’ In her novels and short stories, Williams writes with a surrealistic intensity of how ordinary lives are vulnerable to horror and hopelessness. Although critics have responded somewhat unevenly to her fiction, they nonetheless recognize her unique talent and skill. Gail Godwin observed in the Chicago Tribune Books: ‘‘Joy Williams ‘writes like’ nobody but Joy Williams, and that is distinctively sufficient. . . . She has her own sound. Her writing style is laconic, austere, yet numinously suggestive.’’

Williams first attracted popular and critical attention with State of Grace, an impressionistic novel in which ‘‘shards of experiences slowly assemble into a powerful portrayal of . . . a heroine cursed by total recall,’’ said an Antioch Review contributor. The novel follows the heroine ‘‘from her pregnancy to the birth of her child,’’ wrote David Bromwich in Commentary, ‘‘with generous flashbacks to her religious childhood and her early free-living and free-loving adulthood.’’ Godwin cautioned in the New York Times Book Review that while the ‘‘fated heroine of this bleak but beautifully-crafted first novel may well be the final perfected archetype of all the ‘sad ladies’ . . . [she] is no simple ‘slice-of-despair’ character; her sad story becomes, through the author’s skill and intention, transubstantiated into significant myth.’’ Although the Antioch Review contributor believed the book’s nonlinear structure causes problems with unity, the critic found a ‘‘totally involving immediacy’’ in the novel and concluded: ‘‘All Joy Williams needs is the ability to better organize and control the visions of her extraordinary imagination. She is almost certain to write a novel that will be even finer than this one.’’

The Changeling, Williams’s impressionistic and not easily categorized second novel, did not quite fulfill the expectations several critics held for it. Broyard, for example, acknowledged in the New York Times that State of Grace is a ‘‘startlingly good novel, but it pains me to have to say that The Changeling is a startlingly bad one. . . . Harsh as it may sound, I find that nothing works.’’ Broyard called the story line ‘‘an arbitrary muddle about a young woman who is more or less kidnapped by a man who marries her and takes her to live on an island.’’ Strange occurrences on this island prompted a New Yorker contributor to wonder whether this is a ‘‘horror story or something more serious? The steady decay of [the heroine’s] mental powers, skillfully rendered by Joy Williams, may persuade the reader that the title is a metaphor for a schizophrenic.’’ In the Hudson Review, Patricia Meyer Spacks assessed the novel as an ‘‘increasingly surrealistic account . . . , which retreats altogether from the public realm into a self-indulgent phantasmagoria of privacy’’; Spacks also suspected that the corresponding stylistic shift from ‘‘outer to inner events . . . reflects unsure novelistic purpose.’’ Similarly, Godwin found the stream-of-consciousness ending disappointing and seemingly evasive because of its unanswered questions. However, Godwin concluded in the Chicago Tribune Books that Williams may be luring the reader to his or her ‘‘own solutions—and to await with anticipation her future fictions.’’

Discussing The Changeling in the New York Times Book Review, Alice Adams appreciated the inherent difficulty in writing about the ‘‘borderland between psychosis and reality, the land of private mythology of the ‘grotesque.’’’ And while she believed Williams is a ‘‘talented, skillful writer . . . [who] evokes the feel and smell of certain moments with an eerie precision,’’ Adams found the novel ‘‘unconvincing and ultimately unsatisfactory . . . , instead of the very good one that I believe Joy Williams could write.’’ Nevertheless, D. Keith Mano wrote favorably in the National Review of the multifarious elements in The Changeling, crediting Williams with a willingness ‘‘to stretch and reconnoiter her talent’’ on what he deemed ‘‘a book of risks: primeval myth, enchantment, animal metamorphosis, strange island, symbolism, insanity: more Gothic architecture than Chartres has. Only a daredevil novelist would try to renovate this tenement genre.’’

Taking Care, Williams’s first collection of short stories, has generated much favorable response from critics, many of whom have considered the stories both individually and collectively successful. The ‘‘finely made and perfectly matched stories . . . hold love up to us like a dark, fractured bauble that we should see, reflected and to our astonishment, what moments in our familiar lives it dominates,’’ wrote Richard Ford in the Chicago Tribune Books. David Quammen of the New York Times Book Review suggested that ‘‘social disfunction and the discontinuity of relationships’’ permeate the collection, and he added that most of the stories are ‘‘focused on the imperfect efforts of husbands and wives trying marriage for the second or third time, and on the children surviving (in various degrees of disability) from earlier attempts.’’ Ford found that ‘‘most often and touchingly, Williams’ characters live without love, and grow melancholy for wanting it’’; he maintained that ‘‘Williams writes about such yearnings and their attendant pretensions with a rare, transforming intelligence.’’ Joyce Kornblatt, who detected a similarity in spirit between these stories and those of Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates, observed in the Washington Post Book World that ‘‘madness, murder, the surrender of hope become commonplace rather than extreme behaviors, and even those characters who sustain the ability to love seem perplexed, even encumbered, by their triumph.’’

Caroline Thompson wrote in the Los Angeles Times that ‘‘gathered together, the stories project a cumulative impression that couldn’t be communicated by any single of them.’’ Brina Caplan commended Williams for the subtle yet devastating effect of her collection, and wrote in the Nation: ’’ Taking Care, story by story and incident by incident, withdraws meaning from the lives it represents. In each case, what remains is a gem of despair, worked into the shape of finality by skillful slights of hand.’’ Kornblatt suggested, ‘‘Transcending religious and political systems of belief, Williams speaks to us from a plane of pure feeling.’’ She continued, ‘‘Like fine music, these stories circumvent the intellect. Williams seems to make the works themselves transparent and we gaze directly into the souls of her characters.’’ Williams wrote the 1988 novel Breaking and Entering before returning to the short-story genre with Escapes two years later. Her skill in short fiction, evidenced by the 1982 and 1990 collections, earned her prestigious Rea Award in the category in 1999.

Williams once worked for the U.S. Navy as a researcher and data analyst at its Mate Marine Laboratory in Siesta Key, Florida.The experience impacted her life and her fiction in a number of ways: she made the Florida Keys her permanent home and developed a strong interest in environmental and ecological issues, which would become a recurring theme in her later work. In 1997, she wrote a long piece for Harper’s magazine about the radical animal-rights movement. Her 2000 novel, The Quick and the Dead, touches upon some of these themes through Williams’s characterization of the prickly, opinionated heroine, Alice. The Quick and the Dead was selected for the cover of the New York Times Book Review that October, with an illustration of a grimacing blond teenager wearing a ‘‘THANK YOU FOR NOT BREEDING’’ T-shirt.

The Arizona teenager is a caricatured symbol of the radical environmentalist and pro-animal fringe. Alice is politically astute, a vegetarian, and well informed on population control, conservancy issues, and the planet’s beautifully balanced ecosystem. Alice has difficulty endearing herself to other humans, however. She has a bad experience as a babysitter for two children, whom she disliked: ‘‘They cried frequently, indulged themselves in boring, interminable narratives, were sentimental and cruel, and when frustrated would bite,’’ reads one passage of The Quick and the Dead. Alice tries to teach them how to marvel at nature and urges them to question their teacher, but their hairdresser mother accuses her of satanism and refuses to pay her. At the end of the first chapter, the woman leaves Alice stranded in a state park.

Alice returns home, where she lives with her grandparents, and as The Quick and the Dead unfolds, readers learn that she and two of her close friends are all motherless. Corvus lost her parents in a bizarre drowning death, while Annabel’s spirited mother was struck by a car. All deal with their loss through different means: Corvus is deeply heartbroken—as is her dog— while Annabel seems unfazed. Alice vents her anger on the larger world. A series of events follow to mark the girls’ passage into adulthood. Corvus’s beloved dog runs afoul of a neighbor who dislikes it; the man kills it, and the girls, at Alice’s urging, extract a terrible retribution. The lives of other characters entwine with theirs, but the animal world seems to keep intruding.

Alice moves toward increasing radicalism in the environmental movement, but realizes that this, too, is a form of the conformity and consumerism she so despises. ‘‘Like Alice, The Quick and the Dead is odd, intelligent, unsettling and sometimes spectacularly uningratiating,’’ noted New York Times Book Review writer Jennifer Schuessler. But the critic also termed it ‘‘beautifully written, and often very funny.’’ Schuessler felt that the author’s fourth novel had some structural flaws. ‘‘Williams’ language runs with virtuosity across a wide range, from dead-on vernacular to the gorgeously, unabashed oracular,’’ opined Schuessler. ‘‘But even her perfect pitch can’t keep this scattered, jumpy book from falling to pieces at times.’’ Other reviewers commented more favorably on the ‘‘episodic, meandering structure,’’ as a Publishers Weekly critic termed it, and the somewhat inconclusive ending. ‘‘But these are deliberate choices, made by an artist attentive to real people’s psyches,’’ the reviewer concluded. A U.S. News and World Report contributor termed The Quick and the Dead an ‘‘unsparingly bleak (yet often beautiful) novel,’’ and even Schuessler concluded that Williams’s gifts were evident in the book’s flaws. ‘‘Sometimes the animals barge in awkwardly on the human stories Williams is telling, trying the reader’s sympathies,’’ Schuessler noted. ‘‘But the need to disrupt the easy flow of sympathy—to call into question the self-serving sentimentality that tends to get filed under ‘affirmations of the human spirit’—is one of the book’s themes, and part of its strange fascination.’’

Williams’s 2000 book of environmental essays was hailed as ‘‘sharp, sarcastic and uncompromising’’ by a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Her collection of nineteen essays, including ‘‘Safariland,’’ ‘‘The Case against Babies,’’ and ‘‘Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp,’’ deals with animal rights and the abuse and overuse of the natural world by the human population. ‘‘As a whole the work is effective and will likely leave the reader angry, frustrated, distressed, or depressed, which is, after all, her intent,’’ wrote Maureen J. Delaney-Lehman in Library Journal. Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman concluded, ‘‘These howls, protests and pleas for sanity are lacerating, brilliant, and necessary.’’

Source: Thomson Gale, ‘‘Joy Williams,’’ in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2005.

A Story of Dislocation

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1558

The short story as a compressed narrative is a form particularly well suited to explore small worlds to explore the lives of individuals and communities that are closed off from the larger world. The catalogue of famous stories that deal with these small worlds includes Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (1930), and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948). Each of these antecedents is a story about a dangerous stasis, an unwillingness or inability to change or to evolve in response to changing times. These are stories, too, that focus on characters who resist such changes, hiding themselves in houses or behind insular mindsets that are inevitably used to resist new ideas or visions about what the world is and might become.

At times, as in Jackson’s small town, the results of such a closing off are horrific. At other times, the implications are grotesque, as in the moment when Faulkner’s townspeople realize the necrophilic behavior of Emily Grier. The sisters in Joy Williams’s “The Girls” are the next generation of such closed off people. Reinforced by faith in the American dream, which promises to bring a regenerative prosperity and an organic goodness to the modern world, the sisters hide behind an almost pathological insularity. In tracing the sisters’ movement toward what Father Snow calls the transformative illuminations of meta-noia (a profound change of mind), Williams underscores the temporary joys and the inevitable dangers of living a life with eyes half closed.

As Arthur Miller’s classic play Death of a Salesman (1949) underscores dramatically, the American dream of shared prosperity and a good life does not automatically come true. Paradoxically, as Miller shows, the achievement of a higher standard of living in the postwar United States did not necessarily translate into the better life. As the dream lost its energy, the spiritual and cultural life waned, exemplified in Williams’s story in Father Snow’s crisis in faith and in the superficiality of the girls’ lives. The post-dream world becomes a metaphoric desert in which the detritus of past generations is constantly recycled into imitative trends rather than producing rich sediment that can serve as the foundation for a balanced and invigorating vision of the future. It is a world, as Father Snow comes to recognize, of the “old dead” rather than of “the quickening new.”

As Williams underscores, the residents of this world cannot see themselves as spiritually vacuous or particularly superficial. For instance, the sisters cannot see the ethical implications of their search of Arleen’s room, an incident that is the culmination of “the girls many clandestine visits to her room to find anything of interest.” More telling is the family’s reaction to the girls’ favorite story about how “Daddy ran over that man that winter night” and “didn’t stop even though he knew he’d very likely killed him because [he was] going to a concert.” Clearly, this is not a family that cares much about forging spiritual and personal connections but defines itself instead through a smug resistance to such connections. They are more concerned with getting on with selfish pursuits than with considering such troubling ideas as “guilt” or even poenitare, “which merely means to feel sorry, suggesting a change in the heart rather than in the mind.”

The disruptive presence of Father Snow and Arleen in the family’s daily routine underscores the woefully myopic condition of the culture that the girls define. The guests are a potentially transformative energy in the house, outsiders who have loved and lost and who bring to the jaded residence a willingness to recognize the beauty of the rain-drenched moors. They also recognize without hesitation the problems festering in the family like the bloodsuckers hiding in the fur of the family’s cats.

Like most truth speakers or visionaries, Arleen is seen by the sisters as little more than an old maid, a pathetic “troll” whose love life is described as “safe,” whose stories are “so droll, so retarded,” and whose willingness to tend to the cats’ wellbeing is marked as “disgusting.” Her views on life and on politics are devalued in a world that privileges insularity, pithy commentary, and an unfounded sense of moral and intellectual superiority. The girls scoff at Arleen, believing that she has lost sight of the dream-like prosperity around her. Seeing Arleen as an adversary instead of guest, a delusional antagonist rather than a seer, the girls delegitimize her potentially transformative interpretation. In turning away from the potentially redemptive powers in her observations, the girls turn away, too, from an enlightening moment and from an epiphany that might connect them for the first time to the world beyond the garden walls.

Closed to both the musings of both Arleen and Father Snow, including his discussion of repentance, the girls emphasize their obsessive attachment to the two remaining house cats and ignore the deeper truths circulating around them. The girls are drawn almost hypnotically to their pets. When confronted with Arleen’s observation that the cats have injured a mockingbird earlier in the day, the sisters resist: “‘Those weren’t our cats,’” they rejoined almost in unison, “‘our cats are sweet cats, old stay-at-home cats.” Moreover, they assert with passion, “‘such dreadful things don’t happen in our garden.’” The sisters state these beliefs as truth despite their firsthand knowledge that “even this early in the summer the cats had slaughtered no less than a dozen songbirds by visible count.”

To soothe themselves, the girls believe many self-deluding fictions, from the innocence of their beloved cats to the belief that to have “never been in love” marked them as somehow morally superior to Arleen and Father Snow. Even when Arleen catches the sisters in the act of reading her private journal, the sisters remain firm in their moral righteousness. Their reaction is not one of guilt or even embarrassment but “a perturbed silence” and forced imitation of “extreme wonder.”

But even their insularity has its limits. Forced to serve as captive audience to the real life trials and struggles that their two guests bring to the household, the sisters hear about failed and unrequited love affairs, a profound crisis of faith, and a range of intense, real world emotions that are almost beyond their imagining. Considered individually and as a couple, the guests are seen by the girls as antithetical to a household culture defined by stasis and homogeneity.

The girls are willing prisoners within their own home and eccentrics or oddities outside of it. Living “fearful of crime” and of any real engagement with the world, they are emotionally and intellectually bankrupt, a fact that leads Arleen to challenge them openly about their lies, their beloved cats, and, most provocatively, about the pressures they bring upon an aging mother whose health is in decline. Totally reliant on their parents, and totally cut off from the adult world in which they cannot function, the girls are seemingly oblivious to the fact that “Mommy and Daddy [are] changing” and that a powerful force is “hastening” toward their parents, “slowly . . . cloaked in the minutes and the months.” Hiding away in their “three-storied nineteenth-century house with fish shingles,” the sisters withdraw from the outside world into a place that is “tasteful, cold, and peculiar.”

The danger behind this peculiar, insular world is revealed when Arleen pulls the fat bloodsuckers from the beloved cats Challenging the girls’ vision of the world and speaking volumes to the oppressiveness of their spiritual void, Arleen’s actions symbolize the parasitic, which the sisters represent. Dismissing the truth that lies squirming before their eyes as “disgusting,” the girls push deeper still into their denial to accuse Arleen of producing the bloodsuckers “fraudulently” or through an “unchristian” magic.

Shock soon turns to grief, though, when Arleen speaks the taboo truth. Turning to Mommy, she says bluntly, that it is “high time for [the girls] to be gone” from the house that has shielded them from reality and moral responsibility. Unlike the other visitors who have passed through the home for decades, Arleen understands fully the erosion of the social and moral framework that grips the family, and she declares what all who have come before have also known to be true. As Father Snow acknowledges, Arleen is a woman who “can listen to anything and come to a swift decision” about what action needs to be taken. What she sees is a family that has been dying for years, Arleen is determined to burn away the “old dead” and move forward into a world energized by “the quickening new.”

Tragically, the truth brings death into an insular world that seems destined to change only in unhealthy ways. Sequestering themselves in their home and encountering the world with assumed superiority, the girls dislocate themselves, disconnecting from the ability to dream of a better place of intimate connections and organic humanity. In the end, Williams’s story suggests that the material benefits of the dream life, however impressive they might appear on the surface, are spiritual handicaps, producing a vacuous wasteland within which the once realized dream proves to be much more a diversion than a clearly defined path to the future.

Source: Klay Dyer, Critical Essay on “The Girls,” in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Girls Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Critical Overview