Leaving the Yellow House

by Saul Bellow

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 838

Hattie has lived in her yellow house at Sego Lake for twenty years. She arrived at the beginning of the Depression and lived a vagabond’s life with a cowboy named Wicks. When Wicks left, she moved in with a woman of small but independent means named India, the original owner of the yellow house. As the story begins, Hattie is living alone in the small house, which was left to her by India. She has become something of a snob, preferring the society of the Rolfes and the Paces—who, like herself, are landowners and therefore worthy—to that of her former companions.

Into this fairly tranquil life, trouble intrudes. One evening, driving home drunk from the Rolfes, Hattie loses control of her car and ends up stuck on the railroad tracks. Darley, who works on the Paces’ dude ranch, reluctantly agrees to tow Hattie’s car, but he carelessly leaves the tow chain too long. Hattie, who is climbing over the chain as Darley jerks his truck into reverse, is knocked to the ground, her arm broken.

As she slowly recovers, Hattie wonders about the significance of her injury. Perhaps it is a judgment against her for her drunkenness, her laziness, her procrastinations. For the first time in her life she concerns herself with the past as fact, rather than as self-justifying fiction.

However, admitting the truth has never been Hattie’s style; about the accident, she always says she lost control because she sneezed, not because she was drunk. As Hattie proceeds in her quest for truth, her old self-deceiving patterns constantly impede her. Although the old Hattie is bent on surviving, the new one is bent on knowing.

As a survivor, Hattie is a practical, social being. She must somehow pay her hospital bills, replace the blood she required during surgery, exercise her arm to regain its full use, keep the house in repair. Initially she assumes that her friends will be there to help her, as she would help them, but is the community really a safety net for the individual? Gradually she discovers that there are limits. The Rolfes are leaving for Seattle, the doctor will not buy her house, Amy (a neighboring miner and widow) will care for her only on condition of inheriting her house, and Pace offers a small monthly stipend if she will leave the house to him.

Growing confusion and isolation lead Hattie the survivor to yield more and more time to Hattie the seeker of truth. She scrupulously examines the past, focusing on her life with India, her life with Wicks, and the death of her dog, Ritchie.

An earlier version of Hattie’s life with India casts her companion as an ill-tempered, foul-mouthed, helpless, drunken woman who ordered Hattie about and blamed her when things went wrong. Eventually, Hattie admits that she endured the abuse in order to inherit the house and concedes that India was basically kind and good to her.

Her memory of Wicks undergoes a similar revision. Earlier Wicks was the romantic cowboy who eventually drifted off into the sunset. Now she admits that she refused to marry him because she did not want to give up the distinguished Philadelphia name of her first husband. Among her recollections of their days as trappers is that of him kicking to death a beautiful white coyote. Their relationship ended prosaically at a remote hamburger stand they owned, when the lazy Wicks complained of the food. Hattie cooked a steak for him and threw him out. Now Hattie realizes that Wicks, like India, was a real friend.

However, the vision of Wicks’s killing the white coyote leads to another admission. Hattie has lamented the death of her dog, Ritchie, but at last she admits that it was she who killed Ritchie with an ax-blow to the head when he turned wild and sunk his teeth into her thigh. Her instincts for survival led her to shed blood; her guilt led her to blame her neighbor, Jacamares; her new commitment to truth leads her to confess the whole.

This confession of her own violent impulses intensifies her feeling of being alone, dependent now only on herself for survival. Her attention shifts away from reconstructing the past to planning for the future. She hurries out to her car to see if she is now able to drive, to maintain her independence, but she cannot shift or steer; her arm is all but useless.

Because she can no longer function in this life, she must prepare to leave it. She must make a will. A brief survey of her surviving relatives leaves only one likely heir: Joyce, the orphaned daughter of a cousin. However, would leaving her the yellow house really be a kindness? Like Hattie, Joyce might become a lonely old drunk.

In a drunken blend of pain and joy, she decides to leave the yellow house to herself. Ironically, reconstructing the past has validated Hattie’s sense of self and intensified her commitment to survival.

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