Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591

In “Health,” as in many other stories, Joy Williams assumes the perspective and describes the world of an adolescent female. She is fond of placing characters at this crucial age in order to explore the developmental crises that can emerge. As a result, her stories are often coming-of-age tales that...

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In “Health,” as in many other stories, Joy Williams assumes the perspective and describes the world of an adolescent female. She is fond of placing characters at this crucial age in order to explore the developmental crises that can emerge. As a result, her stories are often coming-of-age tales that detail the experiences of initiation, instruction, and awareness. As a twelve-year-old American girl, Pammy has witnessed the failures of familial and personal love all around her, so she looks for assurances of such love within her own family. Evidence for such love does exist: Morris and Marge demonstrate a kind of marital health that satisfies Pammy’s concerns.

Moreover, that love is made especially important in light of Pammy’s illness. The tuberculosis that rests in her young body heightens her desire for love. Although the disease does not make Pammy physically ill, it represents a potential for serious illness and possibly even death. Indeed, death shadows Pammy’s imagination and her everyday existence. Though the shadowing is made subtle through Williams’s art, it still darkens the corners of Pammy’s world—a world that she works to make safe for herself amid the perils of words and knowledge.

Pammy comes to understand that language and words are powerful, often threatening elements of one’s conscious life. Words such as “germs,” “infection,” and “cancer” can shape one’s perception of how the world operates and how one fits within that world. Pammy herself is touched by illness, but more by the words of that illness than by its actual physical essence. Through these words she examines herself from new perspectives; she considers her changing body and its relative health. Although it is infected by a dangerous bacterium, her body has worked the magic of its youth and vigor in quieting her disease. This fact offers Pammy reassuring knowledge of her own vitality, of her own physical possibility, and to some degree offsets the disquieting knowledge of her own mortality. However, this darker knowledge that haunts the edges of Pammy’s life is inescapable and undeniable in its presence.

More important, Pammy realizes the tremendous power wielded by the imagination as it creates, through word and language, whole new worlds and whole new truths. Words become part of a tactical exercise in defense. Words mask the reality of things; they signify both truths and nontruths that frequently are too horrid to share. So Pammy works to construct—to imagine—a world that enjoys order and meaning. Hers is the adolescent imagination trying to make sense of an adult world; perched precariously on the fine edge of experience, Pammy strives to reconcile the remnants of her innocence with the hard knowledge of her adult world-to-come.

When the bleak, cold intruder steps into Pammy’s tanning room—where the young girl lies literally stripped and figuratively in a coffin—Williams wants the reader to consider the imaginative potentiality of that experience to a twelve-year-old consciousness. Death is the odd, inevitable event that blurs all easy definition and shades the brightest light, and knowledge is the rude collection of fact that forever estranges the innocent heart from the experienced soul.

When Pammy leaves the health spa, she stops at a store called “Imagine,” in whose window display rests a heart-shaped satin pillow split by a heavy metal zipper. This image of the zippered heart speaks both to the desire to close the heart off to hurt and pain, and to the strategy of repair that labors to mend the damage inflicted by the world-at-large.

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