Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The principal technique used throughout the story is the process of memory as it regresses from one event to another, until the narrator finds himself back in his mother’s womb witnessing one of his parents’ violently abusive battles. Dixon, carrying that technique to its most extreme applications, makes it comic and even absurd. Dixon is not concerned with literal events in this story; he explores in brilliant ways how the imagination, through memory, creates significance and meaning in one man’s life. The process of projection, used in the opening scene in which they are dividing up the household goods in preparation for a divorce, enables the man unconsciously to test what such a disaster would feel like, which allows him to appreciate the domestic tranquillity he now enjoys. His son is shown throughout the narrative working on a puzzle, an image that becomes a metaphor for the fictive process that the story is exploring.

As the son is working on a puzzle, the father is experiencing how memory and the imagination unconsciously work out the most complex puzzles in everyday life. The narrator finds only clarity and meaning in interior monologues, where he must articulate in words what his life means to him. He dimly understands that meaning evolves only in words, and that words are the boundaries that protect him from the chaos and despair of what painter Francis Bacon calls “the brutality of fact.” The stark personas of the title become, by means of the humanizing force of Dixon’s imagination, a grateful husband, a loving wife, and a sweet child. Much of the adventure for the reader is following the complex turns of the man’s mind as it regresses and projects and again regresses further and further into the history of his own consciousness. The climax of the story occurs, though, when the husband’s regressive memory comes directly into contact with the rather frightening precincts of the unconscious as he recalls hearing his parents’ battle from within his mother’s womb. Dixon makes that scene simultaneously a comic and deeply disturbing one, because beyond that frontier lay the ultimate abyss of madness.