Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Marianne Wiggins’ volume Herself in Love and Other Stories includes thirteen stories ranging in length from a few pages to twenty-four. Each follows the general outline of the short story, focusing on one major character and one specific situation. Since the settings of the stories vary in time and place, Wiggins uses a style and language appropriate to the locale and type of character she has created. Likewise, the tone of each story varies from delightful humor to biting satire to lyrical pathos. Each story is almost a perfect miniature, making the volume a collection of thirteen perspectives on life. An examination of three stories can serve to illustrate the major aspects found in Wiggins’ writings.

The story “Stonewall Jackson’s Wife” is based on the life and death of the Confederate Civil War General Thomas Jonathan Jackson (1824-1863), known as “Stonewall” Jackson. It is evident that Wiggins has researched the history of the general’s life at the time he was mortally wounded and the subsequent funeral for Jackson, who next to Robert E. Lee was the South’s greatest and most loved general. Also evident is a fine portrayal of the facts surrounding his family life and home in the South; his deceased first wife, Eleanor; his second wife, Anna; and his daughter Julia.

The story is, however, not written in the traditional style of historical fiction. The narrator—a first person “I”—is the spirit of Stonewall Jackson’s first wife, who comments, often disparagingly, on the events from the time that the news of the general’s death first reaches the household in Richmond, Virginia, until the funeral train departs for Lexington, Kentucky. As narrator, Eleanor allows all the characters to speak in their own voices—ranging from the slaves who first report the death, to the dying words of the general, to the often unpleasant and unfeeling discourse of the genteel second wife.

It gradually becomes obvious that the personality of the general changed significantly during the time between his first and second marriages. The younger Jackson was a joyous and passionate man, while the older man seems concentrated on being a devout Calvinist engaged in long periods of prayer and a morose fighting man primarily intent on serving his country. The second wife is portrayed as a loveless woman whose only concern is to ensure that General Stonewall Jackson receives a burial befitting a great military hero. Anna feels slighted when the ongoing war makes it impossible for the military hierarchy to attend the funeral, she despises the masses of ordinary people and soldiers who come to mourn, and she cannot understand why those whom she ignores in turn reject her and pay homage to the general’s daughter. There is a haunting similarity between the people’s response to their young general—who is called Jack by those who love him—and the funeral and cortege of another young Jack—President John F. Kennedy—who was also shot, dying exactly one hundred years after Stonewall Jackson.

“Gandy Dancing” is the story of a modern alienated man who, in a moment of recognition of his state of being, strikes out and does the unexpected. One day shortly before Christmas, a businessman arrives as usual by...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Almost all the characters in this collection of fiction are women, but Wiggins is by no means a writer who only writes and speaks about her own gender. She concentrates on that very fine point where her protagonists encounter an impossible world—indeed, where they attain the position of the classic heroine, but in modern dress.

One can only speculate and wonder what the outcome of the Civil War might have been if “Stonewall Jackson’s Wife,” Eleanor, had not died and could have continued to provide her husband with a life of reason, passion, and love, rather than the commitment to war he acquired after her death. Another unanswered question is raised in the story “Pleasure,” unanswered even when it was first included in the book of Genesis. Neither story provides any evidence that the unnamed woman had committed a sin. She is turned into a pillar of salt; she falls accidentally from a state of innocence and grace into a state of woe for no apparent reason. Marianne Wiggins raises many such questions, but she does not supply answers. She believes that it is the task of the writer “to touch the nerve that otherwise, untouched, lulls us to complacency. I write about the things I fear.” Her readers are taught to fear in the same way.

Herself in Love and Other Stories

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Herself in Love is Marianne Wiggins’ first collection of short stories, following three critically successful novels: Babe (1975), Went South (1980), and Separate Checks (1984). The thirteen stories in the new volume are remarkable for the range of styles Wiggins displays and for the variety of characters and situations she presents. Some of the stories combine fantasy with realistic detail, while others have a kind of gritty factuality.

The most memorable of these tales are those which manage to suggest far more about character and human relationships than they portray directly. The first story, “Ridin’ up in Front with Carl and Marl,” for example, is uneventful on the surface. Told in a kind of country accent by a third-person narrator, it concerns a young wife who is out jogging when her landlady comes by and insists that she get into a pickup truck. They talk as they drive, collect the landlady’s husband after he is through work, and go to a fast-food restaurant. On the way home they find a woman photographer whose car has broken down and who is deeply suspicious of all of them. When they reach home, the young woman goes somewhat reluctantly to the house where her husband is waiting for her, wondering if she has brought him food.

This simple account constitutes the surface of the story. Beneath the surface, the narrator suggests considerable tension. Dolores, the young wife, is jogging to shake off the effects of one more in her series of quarrels with her husband. She resents the older couple and their interference in her life, but she lacks the strength to resist them. Dolores has an artistic streak which manifests itself in experiments with Polaroid photographs, but the landlady dismisses this interest and the professional photographer they encounter does not want to hear about amateur work. It is suggested that, when she returns home, Dolores may be beaten, or worse, by her husband.

“Ridin’ up in Front with Carl and Marl” sets the tone for the entire collection. It indicates that Wiggins is interested in the interactions among people, that their emotions are central in her fictions, that there will be relatively little action in her stories but that their substance is to be found beneath the surface action, and that she is a superb stylist. The other stories show that she commands a wide variety of styles.

Wiggins’ skill as a stylist and her concern with the emotional problems of her characters are demonstrated in one of the shortest of the stories, “Pleasure.” Her descriptive power is shown in the setting: “Behind the women on the beach the russet cliffs rose, cosseting the dusty miller and the random vines. The shoreline was decaying. The clay that held the roots that held the shore was slipping to the sea like lava from the lip of an inferno.” Two women, their children, and two dogs are on this windy beach when a whale beaches itself, to their amazement and horror. The older woman egocentrically conceives the idea that the whale is there to test her will, that if she can somehow get the whale to return to the ocean she will be allowed to rid herself of an obsession with love. She speaks to the whale, and it seems to listen. Eventually the whale slips back into the sea and disappears; it is probably dead. In a surprise ending, the woman appears to watchers as a pillar of salt, reminding the reader of Lot’s Wife. In asking to be released from her obsession with love, she has lost her humanity.

Obsession, in Wiggins’ stories, seems to be a center of interest. In “Pleasure” the older woman’s obsession is destructive, as it is in such a story as “Kafkas.” Here, the central character is a young woman named Fran Koslow, a Ph.D. who is living with her sister and her sister’s husband. Her life is centered on the telephone calls she makes late at night, when her hosts have gone to sleep. She calls directory assistance in large cities and obtains a number for every man surnamed Kafka. As her conversations are reported, it is clear that her intention is to marry a man named Kafka so that she will become Fran Kafka, in imitation of the writer she admires. The men to whom she speaks are often angry at being awakened at a late hour with what they regard as nonsense, but some of them talk with her, and some of the conversations are amusing. Fran Koslow seems herself to be amusing in her quest.

At the end, however, it is clear that this amusing character is pitifully mad. Her sister comes to her with the previous month’s telephone bill, demanding payment. It becomes evident that Fran Koslow has been making these calls over an extended period of time, that she has stopped looking for a job, that looking for a marriageable man named Kafka has become a destructive obsession. She is, by the end, hopelessly lost.

The character who takes the name Redcar in the story “Gandy Dancing” is subject to a more benign obsession. Redcar is an ordinary man, married and a father, who has the sense that life is changing around him and who on an impulse decides, one day, to take a long train trip:He would travel out to California, turn around and come right back. See the country, the whole sweep of it at once, by train, and be back home before the kids and Terry would have time to notice. The trip would take eight days. Which wasn’t much, when you stop to think about it.


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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

D’Evelyn, Thomas. “Parable, Satire, Romantic Parody.” The Christian Science Monitor, August 5, 1987, p. 17. A review article which concentrates on “Quicksand” and “Gandy Dancing.”

Eder, Richard. Review of Herself in Love and Other Stories. Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 16, 1987, p. 3, 15. An article that examines Wiggins and her stories, with special emphasis on “Herself in Love” and “Stonewall Jackson’s Wife.”

Kakutani, Michiko. “Books of the Times: Herself in Love.” The New York Times, August 19, 1987, p. C20. A review article of this collection of stories, with an extended discussion of “Gandy Dancing.”

Lambert, Mark. “Adele Goes West.” London Review of Books, September 17, 1987, 19. A review of Herself in Love and Other Stories with a more extensive examination of “Stonewall Jackson’s Wife.”

Rich, Barbara. “Miniaturists at Work.” The Women’s Review of Books, March, 1988, 20. A review of the stories that examines Wiggins’ language and technique in particular.

Wiggins, Marianne. Interview by Michele Field. Publishers Weekly, February 17, 1989, 57-58. An interview with Wiggins that provides useful biographical and bibliographical information.