Kay Boyle Short Fiction Analysis
In a 1963 article Kay Boyle defines what she saw as the role of the serious writer: to be “the spokesman for those who remain inarticulate an aeolian harp whose sensitive strings respond to the whispers of the concerned people of his time.” The short-story writer, she believed, is “a moralist in the highest sense of the word”; the role of the short-story writer has always been “to speak briefly and clearly of the dignity and integrity of [the] individual.” Perhaps it is through this definition that the reader may distinguish the central threads that run through the variegated fabric of Boyle’s fiction and bind it into a single piece.
In the 1920’s, when the young expatriate artists she knew in Paris were struggling to cast off the yokes of literary convention, Boyle championed the bold and experimental in language, and her own early stories are intensely individual explorations of private experiences. Yet when the pressures of the social world came to bear so heavily on private lives in the twentieth century that they could not be ignored, Boyle began to expand the scope of her vision and vibrate to the note of the new times to affirm on a broader scale the same basic values—the “dignity and integrity” of the individual. Beginning in the 1930’s, her subject matter encompassed the rise of Nazism, the French resistance, the Allied occupation of postwar Germany, and the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements in the United States, yet she never lost sight of the individual dramas acted out against these panoramic backdrops.
In the same article Boyle also quotes Albert Camus’s statement that “a man’s work is nothing but a long journey to recover through the detours of art, the two or three simple and great images which first gained access to his heart.” In Boyle’s journey of more than fifty years, a few central themes remained constant: a belief in the absolute essentiality of love to human well-being—whether on a personal or a global level; an awareness of the many obstacles to its attainment; and a tragic sense of loss when it fails and the gulfs between human beings stand unbridged.
“Wedding Day,” the title story of her first widely circulated volume of short stories, published in 1930, is typical of her early works. It is an intense exploration of a unique private experience written in an experimental style. The action is primarily psychological, and outward events are described as they reflect states of consciousness. Yet it is representative of Boyle’s best work for decades to come, both in its central concern with the failure of love and in its bold and brilliant use of language.
“The red carpet that was to spurt like a hemorrhage from pillar to post was stacked in the corner,” the story begins. From the first sentence the reader senses that things are out of joint. The wedding cake is ignored as it is carried into the pantry “with its beard lying white as hoarfrost on its bosom.” “This was the last lunch,” Boyle writes, and the brother and sister “came in with their buttonholes drooping with violets and sat sadly down, sat down to eat.” To the funereal atmosphere of this wedding day, Boyle injects tension and bitterness. The son and mother argue as to whether the daughter will be given the family’s prized copper saucepans, and he mocks the decorum his mother cherishes when he commands her not to cry, pointing his finger directly at her nose “so that when she looked at him with dignity her eyes wavered and crossed” and “she sat looking proudly at him, erect as a needle staring through its one open eye.” As the mother and son bicker over who wanted the wedding in the first place, the bride-to-be is conspicuously silent. Finally, as the son snatches away each slice of roast beef his mother carves until she whimpers her fear of getting none herself, he and his sister burst into laughter. He tosses his napkin over the chandelier, and she follows him...
(The entire section is 4,047 words.)