Jean Stafford Stafford, Jean - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Stafford, Jean 1915-1979

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, critic, and author of children's books.

Stafford incorporates vivid characterization, detailed descriptions, well-crafted prose, and complex irony to examine such themes as identity, alienation, and the loss of innocence in her fiction. Frequently centering on children, adolescents, and women, her works portray the mental and physical suffering of society's most vulnerable, powerless, and marginalized members. Much of her short fiction was first published in the New Yorker magazine in the 1950s and 1960s and later collected in such volumes as Children Are Bored on Sunday (1953), Bad Characters (1964), and The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford (1969), the latter of which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970. Although Stafford began her writing career as a novelist, her short fiction has achieved greater critical acclaim, with many scholars praising her mastery of the genre. Bruce Bawer, for example, has stated that "Stafford's short fiction . . . represents one of the finest moments of the American short story."

Biographical Information

Stafford was born in Covina, California, the youngest of four children. Her father owned a successful walnut farm but was forced to move his family in 1921 after he went bankrupt playing the stock market. The family never knew financial security after leaving California and relocating to Boulder, Colorado. Stafford's father wrote a pulp Western novel and spent the rest of his life writing and revising manuscripts that were never published; her mother supported the family by taking in sorority girls as boarders. Stafford won a scholarship to the University of Colorado and, after graduating in 1936, traveled to Germany to study philology on a yearlong fellowship at the University of Heidelberg. Returning to Boulder the following summer for a writer's workshop, Stafford met her future husband, twenty-two-year-old aspiring poet Robert Lowell. Determined to become a writer but also desperately in need of a job, Stafford applied for numerous teaching positions throughout the country. She accepted her only offer from Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, but was soon disappointed with the institution, which was more of a finishing school than a university. She quit after a year and moved to New York City in 1938. After being offered a contract with the Boston publishing firm Atlantic Monthly, Stafford moved to Concord, Massachusetts, and began writing a novel. Lowell was in Boston, on vacation from Kenyon College, where he was an undergraduate. During this time, the couple was involved in a serious automobile accident. Lowell, who had poor vision and was driving while intoxicated, was unhurt, but Stafford suffered massive head injuries, including a crushed nose and a fractured jaw and skull. The painful surgery and months of hospitalization she endured became the basis of her acclaimed story "The Interior Castle." Stafford married Lowell two years after the accident and went to live with him in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The relationship was stressful from the start, punctuated by clashing creative temperaments, professional jealousy, and Lowell's zealous practice of Catholicism, to which he had recently converted. He took a vow of celibacy soon after he and Stafford were married; she later told friends that the marriage was never consummated. After six years, the couple separated, and Stafford spent much of 1947 recovering from a nervous breakdown. She married two more times, briefly to Time magazine writer Oliver Jensen, and later to New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling, who died in 1963. Although Stafford's later years were spent in relative seclusion on Long Island, New York, she continued to write stories well into her sixties. Stafford died of complications following a stroke in 1979 and left her entire estate to her cleaning woman.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Many of Stafford's best known and most highly regarded short stories center on individuals who struggle to maintain a sense of identity in unpleasant situations and to cope with a variety of mental and physical traumas. For example, "In the Zoo," first collected in Children Are Bored on Sunday, tells the story of two grown sisters who recall their past as orphaned children dependent on their foster mother, a mean-spirited boardinghouse landlady. As the two recollect their childhood experiences while sitting in the Denver Zoo, they watch a caged polar bear forced to endure the summer heat: "Patient and despairing, he sits on his yellowed haunches on the central rock of his pool, his huge toy paws wearing short boots of mud." "A Modest Proposal," also in the collection, is a reworking of Irish writer Jonathan Swift's darkly satirical essay of the same name. In this story, a group of American women on a Caribbean island waiting to be divorced are forced to listen to a man describe how he has prepared a black child, found in a fire-gutted house, as dinner for his friend. In "The Philosophy Lesson," included in The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, college student Cora Savage rebels against convention by posing nude for a Life Drawing class. During one sitting, she listens to the class gossip about a fellow student's suicide and realizes it was a boy with whom she was infatuated. While remaining completely silent and immobile, Cora comes to terms with her grief, confusion, and feelings of loss. In another story in the volume, "The Liberation," Polly Bay endures her life in a similarly steadfast manner. Although she is an adult—and a college instructor—Polly lives as a veritable prisoner in the home of her aunt and uncle. Her impending marriage promises an escape, but her fiancé, a young Harvard professor, is tragically killed on the eve of her wedding. Polly still leaves, but in panic and trepidation rather than in triumph. Stafford's last story to appear in the New Yorker, "An Influx of Poets," published only a few months before her death, is a thinly disguised chronicle of her years with Lowell and a sarcastic attack on his religious affectations. This work later won an O. Henry Award for best short story.

Critical Reception

While critical reaction to Stafford's fiction has been generally positive, scholars have lamented that her work has not yet received the widespread attention it deserves. Although most critics have praised Stafford's precise and controlled prose, complex characterization, realistic dialogue, and the psychological horror inherent in many of her works, others have faulted what they consider her overemphasis on technique, describing her style as contrived, self-conscious, and lacking in emotional intimacy. Some have also suggested that although Stafford addressed the role of women in American society, many of her female characters ultimately succumb to the restrictions and expectations of patriarchal society. Nevertheless, Stafford's short stories have been consistently lauded for their realism, powerful themes, and sometimes disturbing subject matter; they have also been compared to the works of such notable writers as Anton Chekhov, Henry James, Jane Austen, Fedor Dostoevksy, Thomas Mann, and Eudora Welty. Morris Dickstein has noted that Stafford's stories "do not primarily focus on men and events; instead an atmosphere is created, a situation explored; we are granted not a conclusive action or denouement but only the significant word, the telltale gesture. . . . She lays hold of her characters like an antique-hunter, scrutinizes them from every angle, exhibits their subtle defects and beauties." Jeanette Mann has also praised Stafford's short fiction, stating that "in each story [Stafford] creates a moment of experience, through the use of realistic settings, characters, and dialogues, so as to present, often through the device of dramatic irony, the sudden illumination or understanding, the symbolic crisis, or the unresolved glimpse into the heart of the situation."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Children Are Bored on Sunday 1953

Stories [with John Cheever, Daniel Fuchs, and William Maxwell] 1956

Bad Characters 1964

Selected Stories of Jean Stafford 1966

The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford 1969

Other Major Works

Boston Adventure (novel) 1944

The Mountain Lion (novel) 1947

The Catherine Wheel (novel) 1952

*The Interior Castle (collected works) 1953

Arabian Nights: The Lion and the Carpenter and Other Tales from the Arabian Nights, Retold (children's book) 1962

Elephi, the Cat with a High I.Q. (children's book) 1962 A Mother in History (nonfiction) 1966

*This volume includes the novels Boston Adventure and The Mountain Lion as well as the short story collection Children Are Bored on Sunday.

Howard Mumford Jones (review date 1953)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Memories of Metaphysics," in Saturday Review, May 9, 1953, p. 19.

[In the following review, Jones finds the stories in Children Are Bored on Sunday masterfully written, but sometimes to a fault ]

Of the extraordinary ability of Jean Stafford as an imaginative writer there can be no doubt, but the quality of that ability is difficult to define. Her new collection of sketches and short stories, Children Are Bored on Sunday, raises the whole problem of the nature of her talent, its strength, and its weakness.

It is, of course, an extraordinarily perceptive talent; it is also a talent having masterly control over language as an...

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William Peden (review date 1953)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Bleak, Sad World," in The New York Times Book Review, May 10, 1953, p. 5.

[Peden is an American writer, critic, and educator. In this review of Children Are Bored on Sunday, he finds the stories beautiful, sad, and complex.]

To paraphrase a comment once made by James Branch Cabell, Jean Stafford seems to have dedicated herself to writing beautifully about unbeautiful matters. The smell of the sickroom hovers like an incubus over these sad and unforgettable short stories [in Children Are Bored on Sunday]. Maladies or misfortunes of one sort or other cause Miss Stafford's characters to retreat from the world of customary urges and responses into a...

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Olga W. Vickery (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jean Stafford and the Ironic Vision," in SAQ: South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LXI, No. 4, Autumn, 1962, pp. 484-91.

[In the following essay, which focuses on three of Stafford's novels and many of her short stories, Vickery examines how Stafford's integration of psychological, humanistic, and Christian concepts contributes to her ironic vision of the world.]

Among contemporary writers Jean Stafford has merited considerable critical attention and received surprisingly little. . . . Reviewers have pointed out her affinities with Proust, James, Austen, and Dostoevski and solemnly agreed that she is not their equal. But since not many novelists are, it is perhaps...

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Eleanor Perry (review date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Who Remembers That Fine Fellow, What's-His-Name?" in New York Herald Tribune Book Week, Vol. 2, No. 5, October 11, 1964, pp. 6, 21.

[In this review of Bad Characters, Perry finds Stafford's villains enthralling but notes that a "nagging, sometimes boring, similarity surrounds her 'good' characters." ]

Jean Stafford, one of the finest writers publishing today, is a genius at creating "bad" characters.

Consider Persis Galt, a Boston lady living in Heidelberg just before the outbreak of the war, in her middle forties, "rich and ripe like an autumn fruit" with a "stalwart Massachusetts jaw." She is fascinating whether masquerading in...

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Honor Tracy (review date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jean Stafford's Human Zoo," in The New Republic, Vol. 151, No. 18, October 31, 1964, pp. 22-3.

[In the following review of Bad Characters, Tracy calls Stafford a "brilliant writer" but finds some of the stories in the volume too contrived. ]

There was a day when story-tellers could be roughly divided into two species, the writers and the confectioners. The distinction often was one of purpose rather than of talent. Confectioners could write as well as or better than their serious colleagues: it was merely that they wrote to order or with a cool eye for the public taste, a cat that invariably slips out of the bag as time goes by. And some real writers...

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Thomas Curley (review date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Bad Characters, in Commonweal, Vol. LXXXI, No. 21, February 19, 1965, p. 673.

[In this favorable review of Bad Characters, Curley praises Stafford's characterization and narrative technique. ]

I don't intend faint praise by saying that it's always a pleasure to read Jean Stafford but a distinction, since it is a pleasure, and neither instruction nor enthusiasm, that is Miss Stafford's gift. It is, however, somewhat qualified praise to say that it is a long while since I have simply enjoyed a new book so much. (Seven of the ten stories [in Bad Characters] appeared in the New Yorker, but they are all new to me.)...

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Guy Davenport (review date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, in The New York Times Book Review, February 16, 1969, pp. 1, 40.

[In the review below, Davenport discusses the major themes in The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, focusing on her portrayal of American women. ]

By all rights, Jean Stafford says in her introduction to these 30 brilliant stories [The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford] selected from her work of the past 25 years, she might have been expected to become a regional writer. She grew up in Colorado, her father wrote cowboy stories, and her cousin Margaret Lynn was the author of A Stepdaughter of the Prairie, a memoir of...

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Morris Dickstein (review date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Domesticated Modernism," in The New Republic, Vol. 160, No. 10, March 8, 1969, pp. 25-7.

[In the following review of The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, Dickstein compares Stafford's style and themes to those of American writer Henry James.]

To do justice to the stories of Jean Stafford, even to her recent ones; we need a degree of historical sympathy. They take us back to a time in the 1940's when Henry James was an insurgent influence among American writers, when ethnic writers had not yet transmitted the brooding vitality of their subcultures into the center of our imaginative awareness. Miss Stafford's elegant and sad Wasp Manhattan is closer to...

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Irving Malin (review date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, in Commonweal, Vol. XC, No. 6, April 25, 1969, pp. 174-75.

[Below, Malin examines three of Stafford's short stories, noting that her "poised, beautiful style" is a "perfect frame . . . for the hideous withdrawals, self-deceptions, and perversions of her heroines. "]

Perhaps the clue to Miss Stafford's obsessive themes and images can be found in the last line of "I Love Someone": "My friends and I have managed my life with the best of taste and all that is lacking at this banquet where the appointments are so elegant is something to eat."

Her thirty stories deal with the...

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Joyce Carol Oates (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Interior Castle: The Art of Jean Stafford's Short Fiction," in Shenandoah, Vol. 30, No. 3, 1979, pp. 61-4.

[In the following essay, Oates finds Stafford's style conventional but concedes that many of her short stories are powerful and terrifying.]

Certainly [Stafford's] stories are exquisitely wrought, sensitively imagined, like glass flowers, or arabesques, or the 'interior castle' of Pansy Vanneman's brain ("Not only the brain as the seat of consciousness, but the physical organ itself which she envisioned, romantically, now as a jewel, now as a flower, now as a light in a glass, now as an envelope of rosy vellum containing other envelopes, one within...

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Mary Ellen Williams Walsh (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Young Girl in the West: Disenchantment in Jean Stafford's Short Fiction," in Women and Western American Literature, The Whitston Publishing Company, 1982, pp. 230-43.

[In this essay, Walsh examines the role of women and girls in the western stories in The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford.]

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, Stafford groups ten stories under the heading, "Cowboys and Indians, and Magic Mountains." The heading, which suggests a romantic, mythic West of the past filled with red men and white men in conflict, ironically comments on the contemporary, restricted lives of the characters in Stafford's...

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William G. Leary (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Through Caverns Measureless to Man: Jean Stafford's 'The Interior Castle,'" in Shenandoah, Vol. 34, No. 4, 1983, pp. 79-95.

[In this essay, Leary relates Stafford's personal experiences, particularly her tempestuous relationship with husband Robert Lowell, to the short story "The Interior Castle, " stating the story "may be viewed as a metaphor of Stafford's own battle for survival."]

Anyone seeking an appropriate title for a book that would do justice to the more colorful episodes in Jean Stafford's own life might feel compelled to come up with something like "Profiles in Pain," for many of the experiences she endured were as harrowing as those of her...

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Mary Ellen Williams Walsh (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Maturity and Old Age," in Jean Stafford, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 61-76.

[In the following excerpt, Walsh examines Stafford's depiction of older, mature women in her short fiction.]

The fiction that portrays maturing women, women married, widowed, divorced, or alone by choice, women in their last years, develops characters who are generally more active in controlling the circumstances of their lives than are the girls and younger women that Stafford creates. Nevertheless, some of the characters are portrayed as victims, some as a result of their own detachment from or arrogance toward the world. Images of illness become prominent in this work. The real...

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William G. Leary (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Checkmate: Jean Stafford's 'A Slight Maneuver,'" in Western American Literature, Vol. XXI, No. 2, August, 1986, pp. 99-109.

[In this essay, Leary relates the story "A Slight Maneuver" to the break-up of Stafford's marriage to Robert Lowell.]

During the waning days of 1946, Jean Stafford's life must have appeared to her to be waning, too. Her six-year marriage to Robert Lowell lay in ruins. Her self-esteem was dangerously diminished, her psyche badly disordered, and her body ravaged by the drink and drugs she had turned to as anodynes for her pain. At this critical moment she sequestered herself in the Payne Whitney Clinic of New York City Hospital where she...

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Maureen Ryan (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Orphans in Solitary Confinement: The Short Stories," in Innocence and Estrangement in the Fiction of Jean Stafford, Louisiana State University Press, 1987, pp. 129-42.

[In the following essay, Ryan discusses Stafford's depiction of women and children in her short fiction. ]

As her novels and stories indicate, in technique as well as theme, Jean Stafford is interested in discovery, in the revelatory moment, in the burgeoning of awareness. Appropriately, of all her characters, her children most vividly and cogently present her world view. Handicapped by their youthful inefficacy and their limited knowledge and understanding, these young people are frequently put...

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Bruce Bawer (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jean Stafford's Triumph," in The New Criterion, Vol. 7, No. 3, November, 1988, pp. 61-72.

[In this excerpt, Bawer places Stafford's short fiction in a genre he calls "New Yorker stories. "]

Stafford continued to write short stories well into the mid-Sixties. Indeed, as her novels faded in the reading public's memory, she began to be known primarily for her work in that field, and, in particular, as one of the most celebrated practitioners of the controversial genre known as the New Yorker story. Stafford's short fiction, most of which was assembled in various volumes during the Fifties and Sixties and brought together in the Pulitzer...

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Stacey D'Erasmo (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Lion in Winter: Jean Stafford's Heart of Darkness," in Village Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1992, pp. 31-2.

[In the following essay, D'Erasmo gives an overview of Stafford's career, providing insights into why she stopped writing .]

In one of Jean Stafford's most famous stories, "The Interior Castle," a young woman named Pansy Vannemann lies immobilized in a hospital bed after a disfiguring car accident. Retreating from her terrible pain, she imagines her own brain in voluptuous detail: "She envisaged [it], romantically, now as a jewel, now as a flower, now as a light in a glass, now as an envelope of rosy vellum containing other envelopes, one within...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Avila, Wanda. Jean Stafford, A Comprehensive Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1983, 195 p.

Extensive bibliography.


Goodman, Charlotte Margolis. Jean Stafford: The Savage Heart. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990, 394 p.

Interweaves criticism of Stafford's work with details about her life.

Hulbert, Ann. The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford. New York: Knopf, 1992, 427 p.

Psychological portrait of the writer that pursues "the mystery of Stafford's literary personality."

Roberts, David. Jean...

(The entire section is 238 words.)