Jean Stafford Stafford, Jean (Vol. 4) - Essay

Stafford, Jean (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stafford, Jean 1915–

Ms Stafford is an American novelist and short story writer praised for her sensitive depictions of adolescence and childhood. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

In some respects, the symbolism of The Mountain Lion is too profuse and mechanical, but in the case of this contrapuntal death motif [Molly's death-wish has its counterpart in Ralph's ever-increasing desire to be rid of her], Miss Stafford has made symbol synonymous with theme. Read as an account of two differing reactions to initiation, the novel makes perfectly good sense. But it is equally meaningful viewed as an extended metaphor depicting the initiation of a single adolescent. Psychology generally accepts that one level of maturity is achieved when the adolescent abandons bisexuality and asserts the dominant sexual quality, simultaneously repressing its opposite. Now, sexual knowledge and physical development are the elements specifically denoted as the determinants of Ralph's estrangement from Molly, together with Ralph's resentment of Molly's pre-empting his dreams. Most of the novel, one notes, is presented from Ralph's point of view. Finally and significantly, the lion which Ralph desires to destroy is feminine, and he shoots Molly while ostensibly aiming at it. Ralph, by destroying that part of himself which has resisted initiation, prepares himself for entry into the "good" world of the merchants.

Ralph's successful initiation can be achieved only at the expense of Molly's total alienation. Significantly, Molly never accepts Ralph's definition of the world's being divided into "Kenyon men" and "Bonney merchants." Ralph's definition is objective, based upon a recognition of the social and moral complexity of the adult world. Molly subjectively evaluates people according to the sole criterion of whether or not they are forgivable….

Just as the details of Ralph's and Molly's diverging physical attributes function to dramatize their respective movements toward integration and alienation, so do their differing attitudes toward the central symbol of the novel. To Ralph, the mountain lion represents in part a trophy, the acquisition of which would qualify him for entry into manhood. To Molly, Goldilocks is a vision of loneliness and loveliness—a creature envied for her beauty and independence, hated for that quality of wildness which has united Ralph and Claude in the common bond of pursuit, and yet somehow loved for her pristine and ferocious virginity. Both children's destinies are clearly bound to the fate of the mountain lion, but a shared quality of isolation links Molly [more] closely and directly with Goldilocks. Although the causes obviously differ, both are the prey of a hostile society. Molly's subconscious recognition of their common dilemma prompts her anxiety for Goldilocks's safety. But with deliberately arrested innocence, she has never progressed beyond childish ritual: "She lit the incense in the gilt incense Buddha burner which she had brought from Covina and very briefly prayed that the mountain lion would … clear out of the hills…. She hoped neither Ralph nor Uncle Claude would get her" (215)….

In its final form, then, The Mountain Lion is not only a novel of adolescent initiation but a saga of a changing America. The violence of the concluding scene represents, symbolically, the cataclysmic disruption of American society. On this panoramic scale, Ralph's violent initiation dramatizes the plight of a whole generation growing up to discover an America tragically unlike that which their fore-bears had taught them to expect. Through a contrapuntal structure, Miss Stafford has depicted the disastrous fate awaiting the uncompromising innocent in his encounter with modern society, while pointing out that a loss of innocence and a compromise of ideals go hand in hand. Molly, the uncompromising innocent, adherent to the ideals of a vanished nineteenth-century society, fails to achieve self-realization; Ralph succeeds, but only by abandoning most of his ideals. Since Miss Stafford obviously prefers the values inherent in the earlier society, both plots are tragic, but the real tragedy implicit in The Mountain Lion is that, in order to achieve self-realization in a changing society, the individual must compromise or deny those very qualities which constitute the self.

Stuart L. Burns, "Counterpoint in Jean Stafford's 'The Mountain Lion'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. IX, No. 2, 1967, pp. 20-32.

If one opens Jean Stafford's Collected Stories to, say, "The Lippia Lawn", which begins, "Although its roots are clever, the trailing arbutus at Deer Lick had been wrenched out by the hogs," he is promised the work of a kind of poet and this promise the other stories generally keep. It's the "clever", employed for all its worth, including its root sense that does it almost all; and this as it should be, if, as I suppose with a few other theorists, the short story is most like the lyric and its agent is neither plot nor character but diction. When the diction is felicitous and decorous, the tone and feeling will cradle characterization, enhance idea, and imply action which the novel must always dramatize—or fail. But this is not to say that the short story is a poem and here, too, is where some writers (and not a few critics) have gone wrong.

The short story is not quite a poem any more than it is [not] quite a short novel boiled conveniently down to bite size. So it cannot, therefore, be done with sounds, sights, and symbols alone….

This "collection" (some of Miss Stafford's stories are not here), thirty strong, is grouped geographically under these headings: "The Innocents Abroad"; "The Bostonians" and "Other Manifestations of the American Scene"; "Cowboys and Indians" and "Magic Mountains"; and "Manhattan Island". This arrangement is, Miss Stafford in her prefatory note acknowledges, "arbitrary". In any case it is merely descriptive, and since she is not presuming to be critic of her own work, it is legitimate enough. As a practitioner here of evaluative criticism I would elect to see them as falling naturally into two rather than four groupings: real stories with sufficient verbal magic to compensate nicely for the absence of explicit causal-temporal logic essential only to the longer fictional forms; and alleged stories which no amount of verbal magic can rescue from a poverty of implied plot and other formal features. I found few of the latter in this book and even those got out of this pedant a grudging approval.

"The Captain's Gift" isn't, I think, a story, and neither, I suspect, is "Between the Porch and the Altar". Both seem to me programmatic tales calculated to make a fictional statement without ample fictional means….

M. M. Liberman, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1969 by The University of the South), Summer, 1969, pp. 516-21.

Jean Stafford's "A Country Love Story" begins in this way:

An antique sleigh stood in the yard, snow after snow banked up against its eroded runners….

[The] beginning of Jean Stafford's story, in comparison with the more recent fictions [of, for example, Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan, and Robert Coover], reads like something from the other side of the moon. The most immediately striking differences lie in what Jean Stafford does, and the more recent writers do not do, with time and with physical objects.

"An antique sleigh," "snow after snow," "eroded runners," phrases like these from the first sentence begin to present a durational mode that is little short of obsessive, projecting us immediately into a world of waiting, expecting, contemplating, appreciating, hoping, wondering, all of those experiences in which the mind and the sensibility are deployed around the central object of their contemplation, slow change. Both objects and people bear with them the marks of their own past; everything decays and disintegrates; both nature and people present the appearance of cyclic or ritualistically recurring behavior. In addition, time, in such fiction, always carries with it an implicit valuation…. [We] are unsure, in that first paragraph, whether the sleigh is worn out, and should be discarded, or is an authentic antique, and should be preserved….

There is a perverse kind of time sense at work in new fiction, centering especially around a fascination with the junk of our culture, both linguistic and material. But it is in no way comparable to the durational quality of Jean Stafford's story. If we recall the enormous amount of critical attention given to the philosophy of Bergson and the temporal techniques of Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Joyce, and if we then regard the use of time in Jean Stafford's story as a stylized domestication of one of the chief modernist preoccupations, then the atemporality of such fiction as Barthelme's, the indifference to slow change and the lack of interest in the value-conferring process I have described all become highly significant….

Secondly, to return to Jean Stafford's [story], a set of relationships is evoked between two different modes of existence, in this case the man-made object and the forces of the natural world, and these relationships are played upon in a symbolistic way. The function of a sleigh is to ride on the snow, not be covered by it. And we know, even from the first sentence, that the presence of the sleigh, immobile and nonfunctional, will be made into a metaphor, charged with a flexible, ironic, noncommittal value, a metaphor for the presence of man in the world. As in the case of time, such a man-nature dichotomy, as a center for a symbolistic charge of meaning, is a convention, present in a large amount of modernist fiction, extended and refined in the kind of sensibility fiction which Jean Stafford represents. But here again it is a convention of no use to new fiction, in which the made and the born, the authentic and the schlock, the natural and the manufactured are all taken as the given data of a difficult world which simply cannot be divided into two halves.

Thirdly, there is, in Jean Stafford's story, the presence of the thing itself, an object pulled out of the background and conspicuously placed before our attention,… a marvelously versatile structural device, which compresses and gathers together a number of attitudes axial to the story that follows. But there is not much doubt that the image of the sleigh is more than a trope or a structural device to Jean Stafford and her readers; it is a thing, with intricacy of contour, complexity of texture, solidity, and the marks of its own past. Whatever its usefulness in the story, it is an image that issues from the imagination of a writer fascinated with the material objects of daily, sensory existence.

Such "solidity of specification," in James's phrase, is central to the purpose of the classic realistic novel…. [Allowing] an affectionate interest in things to stand at the very center of one's fiction is in the Anglo-American tradition…. Take the phenomenal settings, for a further example [of] the ways in which the character's conscious experience is controlled by the spaces in which the [author chooses] to present it…. In due course certain exterior events will take place [in Stafford's story], but the characters' most intense emotional scenes are lived out within rooms. It is not merely a convenience of staging to place the characters within those spaces in which they most conveniently interact. And it is not merely the realistic result of the fact that the characters, being upper middle class, do spend most of their time in rooms. There is an obsessive, house-bound quality in such fiction, reminiscent of Samuel Richardson, in which doors and windows, corridors and stairs, beds, tables, and chairs all figure heavily. Once again, it occurs to me that there was a time when it seemed to all of us that that was simply the way very much fiction was written, with characters condemned to work out their fates in studies, kitchens, and living rooms…. If the action in new fiction does take place in houses, it is never for purposes of defining the "usualness" of a cast of domestic characters or for rendering the room-bound effect so useful to Jean Stafford….

In some seemingly indefinable way, Jean Stafford's opening paragraph sounds not only characteristic of her work as a whole. It also sounds like countless other stories of about the same period….

In Jean Stafford's story, the events consist of tensions made only partly overt, harsh words, misunderstandings. Any sharply exterior events clearly exist to figure forth the moral and psychological dynamics of the characters. Ultimately the story ends with a kind of plateau of understanding toward which the rest of the fiction has worked. Epiphany is too facile and imprecise a word for what happens at the end of the story. It is a moment both of resignation and of awesome frustration in the face of the future, and any word, such as epiphany, which implies sudden insight is misleading. Still, the structure of the story is in the tradition of epiphany fiction, which is to say that it values the private and the domestic over the public and the external, that it demonstrates a belief in the possibility that an intuitive self-knowledge can cut through accumulations of social ritual and self-deception, a belief so firm that it permits the intuitive act to serve as dramatic end point and structural principle, indeed as the very moral justification for the fiction….

[The] most conventionalized, imitated, standardized feature of modernist fiction, especially shorter fiction, of the last generation [is] the epiphanic illumination, or, as in Jean Stafford, the self-generated plateau of understanding which transcends the plane of social conventionality and habitual self-deception which has made the self-understanding both possible and necessary….

We have a conventional desire when we are led to expect events, devices, and tonal manipulations typical of the genre. Jean Stafford's story is full of such conventional desires and fulfillments, the sophisticated mastery of the characters alternating with their humiliation and ineffectuality, the compassion of the author alternating with her ironic distance, the diminuendo into generalized pathos at the end, all of these being typical of the genre.

Philip Stevick, "Scheharazade runs out of plots, goes on talking; the king, puzzled, listens: an essay on new fiction," in Tri-Quarterly 26 (© 1973 by Northwestern University Press), Winter, 1973, pp. 332-62.