Historical Context

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Terrorism Terrorism is an act of indiscriminate violence against civilians carried out by people of some political or religious affiliation with the intention of subverting the dominant power. Worldwide numbers of people who have died as a result of terror are usually much fewer than one thousand per year, as...

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Terrorism
Terrorism is an act of indiscriminate violence against civilians carried out by people of some political or religious affiliation with the intention of subverting the dominant power. Worldwide numbers of people who have died as a result of terror are usually much fewer than one thousand per year, as reported by the U.S. Department of the State, which has collected statistics on terrorism since 1968. The numbers of people killed or injured in terrorist attacks worldwide was especially high in 2001 at more than 3,500. Terrorist attacks have been a means of exerting pressure around the world for much of human history but were prominent in the minds of Americans in the early 2000s because of attacks such as the one against the U.S.S. Cole off the coast of Yemen on October 12, 2000 (17 dead and 40 wounded) and the one against the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 (2,997 dead and an unknown number injured). Prominent terrorist attacks from the early 2000s outside the United States include the bombing of the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001 (15 dead); the Passover Massacre in Israel on March 27, 2002 (30 dead and 140 wounded); the Bali bombing on October 12, 2002 (202 dead and 209 wounded); the Moscow Theater siege from October 23 until October 26, 2002 (171 dead and over 1,000 injured in the subsequent rescue-raid); and the Istanbul truck bombings of November 15 and November 20, 2003 (57 dead and 700 wounded). These attacks only represent a small number of the many terrorist actions that happened around the world in the early 2000s, especially in Israel and Iraq. Williams’s story is concerned with a kind of terrorism closer to home: the girls are indiscriminate about torturing their parents’ guests, so long as they keep their parents isolated from other people and thus have them all to themselves.

Anglo-American Relations
The United States and the United Kingdom have a close diplomatic relationship. They are each other’s dearest political allies. In the early 2000s, U.S. president George W. Bush and U.K. prime minister Tony Blair joined forces in the so-called war on terror. The United Kingdom, among other European nations, assisted the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that began in October 2001; however, the United Kingdom stood alone among major European nations in supporting the U.S. war in Iraq, beginning in March 2003. President Bush maintained an approval rating of more than 50 percent for the first term of his presidency. His ratings fell below and stayed below 50 percent starting in spring of 2004. Prime Minister Blair likewise came under heavy criticism for supporting the United States in the Iraq invasion, especially after the revelation that there existed no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—the reason given by the Bush administration for invading the country in the first place.

The United States and the United Kingdom also have a strong trade relationship, investing heavily in each other’s economies. Both countries have large Christian populations although diversity in ethnicity and religion is supported by law. The modern U.S. government was founded by English colonists escaping religious persecution in England which ties both nations together historically and culturally. Nevertheless, over two hundred years of separation between the two countries has led to significant cultural differences such as are seen in slang, popular foods, sports, and senses of humor. In Williams’s story, the girls pick on Arlene about celebrating her birthday, declaring it to be a silly American custom. Although this is not an opinion shared with a majority of British citizens, the girls’ general attitude also underlines the fact that the United States and the United Kingdom even differ in their approaches to common holidays and celebrations. For example, Halloween (October 31) is very popular in the United States whereas in the United Kingdom, Halloween is only briefly acknowledged as people prepare to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day on November 5 with bonfires, fireworks, and parties.

Literary Style

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Climax and Denouement
The climax of a story occurs when the plot reaches its crisis. It is often the most exciting part, when secrets are revealed. “The Girls” arrives at its climax when Arleen tells Mommy to get rid her daughters because the girls are killing her. This extraordinary announcement is surprising because it comes from quiet and differential Arleen and because of what Arleen is saying. The girls are shocked and, of course, deny her statement, but the reader, having seen into the mean, cold hearts of these sisters, knows what Arleen says is true. Arleen’s courageous statement about how toxic the girls are creates the climax of the story by bringing the truth out in the open.

Denouement derives from a French word meaning, to untie. It occurs after the climax and is the point in the story when the secrets and questions put forth in a story are resolved. In Williams’s short story, the denouement comes very quickly after the climax. Mommy tries to act as if everything is normal, offering her company more hors d’oeuvres. Her strange facial expression probably indicates a stroke. She falls off her chair and hits her head on the lintel of the fireplace, dying.

Protagonist and Antagonist
The protagonist is the main character of a story and often times the point-of-view character as well. The protagonists of “The Girls” are the girls themselves. Unlike many protagonists, though, these daughters are not sympathetic characters. They are needlessly cruel to others, spoiled, manipulative, and self-absorbed.

An antagonist is the character who opposes the protagonist. Although the antagonist is often a villain of some sort, in Williams’s story the antagonist is Arleen—the most realistic and sympathetic character in the story. Arleen reveals herself as the antagonist when she tells Mommy at the end of the story to get rid of the girls. The girls have thought that she was a silly woman and are shocked to discover that she is their most serious adversary.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Adams, Alice, “Someone Else’s Dream,” in New York Times Book Review, July 2, 1978, p. 6.

Cooper, Rand Richards, “The Dark at the End of the Tunnel,” in New York Times Book Review, January 21, 1990, p. 9.

Ellis, Bret Easton, “The Things They Babbled to Willie,” in New York Times, June 5, 1988, p. A1.

Gates, David, Review of Honored Guest, in Newsweek International, January 10, 2005, p. 49.

Godwin, Gail, Review of State of Grace, in New York Times, April 22, 1973, p. 276.

“Joy Williams’s Teenage Misfits,” in Economist, No. 358, January 13, 2001, p. 7.

Kakutani, Michiko, “Taking to the Highway, Fleeing the Inescapable,” in New York Times, January 5, 1990, p. C28.

Metcalf, Stephen, “The Small Chill,” in New York Times Book Review, December 19, 2004, p. 14.

Miller, Sara, “Holy Animals,” in Books & Culture, Vol. 11, No. 3, May–June 2005, p. 14.

Review of Honored Guest, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 76, No. 16, August 15, 2004, p. 776.

Review of Honored Guest, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 251, No. 35, August 30, 2004, p. 30.

Review of The Quick and the Dead, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 247, No. 38, September 18, 2000, p. 88.

Schwarz, Benjamin, Review of Honored Guest, in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 294, No. 5, December 2004, p. 124.

Williams, Joy, “The Girls,” in The Best American Short Stories 2005, edited by Michael Chabon, Houghton Mifflin, 2005, pp. 212–22.

Further Reading
Christopher, David, British Culture, Routledge, 2006. Christopher’s book is an introduction to the major movements within British culture, covering politics, language, literature, media, architecture, and more.

Hogle, Jerrold E., The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, Cambridge University Press, 2002. This book collects fourteen essays which examine gothic literature in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, drawing out connections to politics, racism, theater, film, human identity, and more.

Hotchkiss, Sandy, Why Is It Always about You?: Saving Yourself from the Narcissists in Your Life, Free Press, 2002. This book about clinical narcissism was written for the popular market. It has chapters for different relationships, including parent, spouse, child, and coworker, and tips on how to live with a narcissist.

Oates, Joyce Carol, ed., American Gothic Tales, Plume, 1996. This collection of forty short stories spans two hundred years of American gothic fiction and includes favorite American writers such as Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, and Anne Rice.

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