Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639
Like much of Ann Beattie’s fiction, “Imagined Scenes” is more evocation of a situation than plotted tale. The seven sections of the story cover three days in the life of the female protagonist, who sits nights with an old man while his daughter and son-in-law take a midwinter vacation in Florida. The garrulous old man reminisces about the terrible winter he spent in Berlin and produces photograph albums and postcards, one of which, a silver-spangled picture of Rip Van Winkle walking through a moonlit forest, provides one of the story’s many ambiguous echoes. The old man’s chatter provides contrast with the scenes between the protagonist and her husband, David. Their marriage seems a wary one, dominated by silences, clichéd expressions of concern, and David’s ambiguous disappearances and his relationship with the new neighbors, the Duanes.
The opening section establishes the protagonist’s dependence on her husband, who seems to her energetic and supremely competent, able to anticipate her needs and alleviate her fears. However, their relationship seems very much like that which a brother and sister might have. There is no hint of passion or even deep caring on David’s part. Instead, there is a smugness about him, communicated in the first section by mention of his “surprise” decision the previous summer to quit work and return to graduate school and by his guessing that she has dreamed of Greece and then insisting, without asking her opinion, that they will go there. Though the protagonist would rather go to Spain, she silences her objection with the significant line, “She should let him sleep.”
The subjects of wandering and sleeping dominate the story. During the three nights she spends watching the old man (the third, fifth, and seventh sections of the narrative), she is increasingly cut off—by the ever-falling snow and by David’s absences and ambiguity about the new neighbors—from the comfortable reality of her marriage. She is forced to imagine his whereabouts, and in the fourth, sixth, and seventh sections, to question him without seeming to intrude into his privacy. Appearances suggest that he no longer studies for his Ph.D. orals, and his having given their houseplant to the Duanes puzzles her, as does his reluctance to take her to the Duane home. His failure to answer the telephone late the second night causes her to imagine once again the dream scene of ocean and mountains and to name it this time, as if in obedience, Greece. His apparent absence the third night when she calls at four in the morning visibly depresses her and reminds her of his previous excuses, that he was walking the dog through the forest at night and that he “could have been anywhere.” His surprising appearance the next day to help the old man up from the snow and his excuse for the night before (“I was sleeping”) reinforce the connections between him and the Rip Van Winkle figure and at the same time seem to reinforce his image as an eccentric but caring man, magically able, as in the opening section of the story, to anticipate her needs.
Most important, the scene leaves the protagonist in a true dilemma: The old man has told her that the aged, lacking power to “improve things,” learn to make up stories, “to lie all the time,” and this young woman, finding her reality to be an indeterminate mixture of speculation and apparent fact, does not know what to make of it. She distrusts David without wanting to, yet she sleeps through the ringing of their telephone even as her subconscious mind registers the sound—just as David claims to have done. “You don’t know what it’s like to be caught,” the old man’s sister tells her, but clearly that is not true.
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