Style and Technique

Lydia Davis writes direct prose with no dialogue and only a minimum of proper names: M. Martin, the Lamartine sister, and the narrator’s neighbor, Mme Bac. Davis is rather fonder of the colon than most writers, using it effectively ten times in a story of less than four pages, and she also works the dash well. Her plain diction suits her bleak tale, and her paragraphs develop in satisfying mixes of sentence lengths and patterns. Adjectives are permitted with restraint, but adverbs are largely banished. The first paragraph constructs a neat series of antitheses, and clauses march in parallel formations throughout the story. Doublets abound, and coordinate constructions depending on “and” or “but” advance the narrative two steps at a time. These features create a vigorous prose that is easy and pleasant to read.

As is usual with allegories, symbols play a considerable role in “The House Behind,” most obviously in the role of the houses themselves. When the cold war between the classes erupts in violence, the narrator calls the murder strangely gratuitous, but it is not really. That is, although the victim is guilty of nothing more than being well off (the narrator admits she cannot be blamed for her status in life), her death becomes quickly understood as an event in the ongoing unfairness of life’s distribution of goods. Surely, many of the globe’s dispossessed agree with the nineteenth century socialist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon...

(The entire section is 406 words.)