Gustafsson’s “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases” says a great deal in a short space about mental retardation and how it was regarded in the mid-twentieth century. It deserves a place alongside other short stories of the century, such as Jack London’s “Told in the Drooling Ward” (1914) and Eudora Welty’s “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” (1941), both of which treat the subject of mental retardation with humor and understanding.
The boy in Gustafsson’s story is recognized by his family as being retarded when he is still very young. He does not learn as quickly as his brother and sister, and his language skills lag behind the norm. But his parents seem to have little idea of what to do with him. They beat him so that he will not go to the woodshed and hurt himself, and they also ban him from the woods behind the barn, which is the only place he feels at home. They no doubt feel protective of his welfare, but like other parents of a mentally retarded child, they must decide what to do with him. This boy is given only a week at a normal school. When he cannot learn anything in that time he is, one presumes, declared impossible to educate—a not uncommon attitude at the time. Not knowing what else to do with him, and perhaps feeling the stigma often attached to those who had a retarded person in the family, his parents send him to an institution. For the better part of the century, institutionalization of the retarded was the norm. It was considered better for the general welfare if they were herded together, isolated from society’s embarrassed and disapproving gaze.
The home in the story takes in boys of all levels of mental retardation. Some are severe cases, such as the fat boy who makes little paper balls out of anything he can find and eats them. Some of the boys cannot feed themselves properly; most of them move around slowly, and “some were so deep in their own worlds that nothing could have disturbed them.” The protagonist is himself considered one of the “hopeless ones,” but that is only after an encouraging period in his life comes to an end. The shining light in this story is the unnamed teacher who arrives at the home when the boy is about thirteen years old. The fact that there is a teacher at all shows that the home does make some effort to educate its residents, unlike some of the worst institutions in Europe and the United States that during the twentieth century had the responsibility of caring of some of society’s most vulnerable citizens. In the story, the boys who are only mildly retarded are given practical training in the wood shop, and their new teacher makes every effort to involve the unnamed protagonist, who is more severely retarded, in useful activity. He is allowed to sort pieces of wood, sweep floors, and empty pails of wood shavings. The teacher treats him like a human being, and the boy responds. He is made to feel that he really exists, even though he still lacks language skills, and the other boys laugh at him.
The real tragedy in the boy’s life comes after the teacher leaves. No one thereafter takes much notice of him, and as a result of his neglect, he “slip[s] away,” into his interior world, isolated from meaningful human contact. As an adult he is allowed to get fat, and apart from his supervised and unrewarding trips to the apple orchard, he appears to spend most of his time, for many years, sitting in a chair in the dayroom gazing out of the window.
It is here that the story takes an almost mystical turn. The arc of the retarded man’s life has appeared to...
(The entire section is 1472 words.)