(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Herbert Gold’s short fiction depicts realistic themes and settings—most often dealing with male-female relationships or the broader theme of families. He has a keen eye for contemporary manners and mores, and his fiction and essays often investigate how people deal with life, their environment, and one another. Much of Gold’s short fiction features middle-aged men, divorced or unhappily married, who have passionate but brief relationships with younger women. In these stories, the men typically are presented as innocent victims of manipulative women. Other stories illuminate the broader network of family relationships, and his treatment of the elderly can be particularly sensitive.

In most of his stories, the situations and personalities are very close to his own life story. Gold has said he writes “semi-automatically” so as to get in touch with his dreams, fantasies, and recollections, especially in his fiction; when he writes less intuitively, he produces essays, which are outlined in advance. Gold’s dialogue is frequently wry and witty; his style is often conversational, and he avoids overt symbolism, as he prefers to let the story create its symbols in the reader’s mind. Often the story’s end is not definitive but leaves the next step in the character’s evolution to the reader’s imagination.

In some stories, Gold objectifies one or more characters by not naming them—in fact, in his novel He/She (1980), the names of the main characters, a divorcing couple, are never mentioned. From 1986 to 1999, Gold’s output comprised three collections of nonfiction and three novels.

“The Heart of the Artichoke”

Perhaps Gold’s best-known work of short fiction, “The Heart of the Artichoke” (1951) describes the conflicts between twelve-year-old Daniel and his father, whom he deeply loves and admires. His parents insist Daniel work in the family grocery store, a job about which he feels embarrassed. He feels that he has been branded a lower-class immigrant, not only in his own eyes but also, and more devastatingly, in the eyes of Pattie, the wealthy girl on whom he has a crush. His father, who came to America to start a new life against his own father’s wishes, does not see that Daniel now faces a similar conflict with his father.

When a class field trip is scheduled for one of the busiest days of the year at the store, Daniel sneaks out of work to join his friends. When Pattie shares her lunch with him and lets him walk her home, Daniel is thrilled and confesses he likes her. Her dismissive response that he is just a grocery boy devastates him. The story concludes with an intensely emotional and physical conflict between Daniel and his father.

In “The Heart of the Artichoke,” food is a family symbol of love, security, and abundance, and the father relishes procuring and selling excellent food as much as eating it. Gold uses food analogies, particularly those of the artichoke, to illustrate both the conflicts inherent in the adolescent’s struggle to make his or her own way and the problems between immigrant parents and their children.

Lovers and Cohorts

Gold’s 1986 collection of twenty-seven essays and short stories includes a...

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