Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Epistolary technique is what makes “Marjorie Daw” succeed. After some initial exchanges, involving a letter by Dr. Dillon and two by Flemming, the letters are all from Delaney to either Flemming or Dillon. However, near the end, there is a flurry of telegrams exchanged between Flemming and Delaney and a brief, necessary narrative under the heading “The Arrival,” describing what happens when Flemming finally reaches the Pines and discovers his friend’s unintentional hoax, which is explained in Delaney’s final letter to Flemming, left to be delivered by a servant.

Thomas Bailey Aldrich adroitly alters the pace of the story by beginning with letters that are relatively long, desultory in content, and relaxed in tone. As Flemming’s interest in Marjorie grows, the letters from Delaney grow both more focused and shorter, paralleling Flemming’s mounting anticipation. Finally, on the eve of Flemming’s arrival at the Pines, correspondence is reduced to terse, cryptic telegrams, exploding with Flemming’s urgency and resolve and Delaney’s insistence that he remain put. Placed just before the climax, the moment of recognition, these messages provide a pronounced staccato contrast to the earlier epistles and mark the moment of highest emotional pitch. In its structure, “Marjorie Daw” thus offers a textbook illustration of how the traditional, well-made formula story should work.

Equally important, the details about the Daws that Delaney invents are convincing and make his deception believable. First-time readers of the story might also find the Daws real, although from the start there are hints that Delaney’s account is suspect. There are, for example, odd inconsistencies, such as the unlikely location of an old colonial mansion across the road from a rustic cottage, and Delaney’s own stated disinterest in Marjorie—a woman whom he depicts as the ideal embodiment of beauty, charm, and grace. Such hints foreshadow the final revelation, making it not so much a surprise twist as the necessary and logical outcome of this carefully crafted story.