The Theme of Evil in Williams's Short Story
“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...
(The entire section is 1563 words.)