Morley Callaghan

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Morley Callaghan Short Fiction Analysis

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Over his long career, Morley Callaghan published more than one hundred short stories, in such magazines as The New Yorker, Scribner’s Magazine, and numerous other magazines. Many of these have been collected in his four volumes of short stories.

While there are variations and exceptions, Callaghan’s stories generally have recognizable characteristics. Foremost of these is the style: Most noticeably in the early works, Callaghan employs short declarative sentences, colloquial dialogue, and plain, unadorned language. As he remarked in That Summer in Paris, he attempts to “tell the truth cleanly.” This sparse, economical, straightforward style has been compared with Hemingway’s. Perhaps Callaghan was influenced by Hemingway (he admired and respected the older author), but it is likely that Callaghan’s work on a newspaper shaped his writing, just as Hemingway’s style was honed by his years of reporting.

Like a journalist, Callaghan presented the events in his stories objectively, neither condemning nor praising his character. By precisely recording his observations, Callaghan allows his readers to form their own judgments. He strives “to strip the language, and make the style, the method, all the psychological ramifications, the ambience of the relationships, all the one thing, so the reader couldn’t make separations. Cézanne’s apples. The appleness of the apples. Yet just apples.” In other words, he endeavored to capture the essence of the moment.

Although Callaghan’s stories are often set in Canada, he should not be classified as a regional writer. His appeal ranges beyond the borders of his country. The themes he treats are universal and are not limited to Canadian issues; in fact, he has been criticized for not addressing Canadian problems more forcefully. Many of his stories examine human relationships, and they therefore revolve around psychological issues rather than physical actions. They depict the ordinary person and his or her desire for happiness. This desire is often frustrated by environmental forces such as unemployment and injustice and by internal drives such as fear and sex. In the early stories, the characters, inarticulate and of less than normal intelligence, are on the edge of society: the poor, the disabled, the criminal, and the insane. The characters in Callaghan’s later stories are more likely to be educated, but they still struggle in their quest for a better life. All Callaghan’s characters reflect his concerns as a Roman Catholic, and a certain pessimism underlies their portrayals. Rarely in Callaghan’s characters are innate spirituality and nobility of character allowed to triumph over the more ignoble of human instincts and behavior.

In 1928, Scribner’s published Callaghan’s first novel, Strange Fugitive, and followed this a year later with A Native Argosy, a collection of short fiction containing fourteen stories and two novellas. These stories are some of the most naturalistic produced by Callaghan, and the characters, themes, and style resemble that found in work by other naturalistic writers, such as Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris. Influenced by Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud, these authors applied the principles of scientific determinism to their fiction. Humans are viewed as animals trapped in a constant struggle to survive. They are limited by forces that are beyond their control and even beyond their understanding. Callaghan, like the other naturalistic writers, presents the material in an objective and documentary manner, eschewing moral judgments and optimistic endings.

“A Country Passion”

The first story in the collection, “A Country Passion,” originally printed in Transition , portrays an inarticulate character who is ultimately destroyed by a combination of his instincts and society’s strictures. Jim Cline loves Ettie Corley, a retarded girl twenty-nine years his junior, who will...

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soon be sent to an asylum. He wants to marry the sixteen-year-old girl, but the minister forbids it because Jim has been in jail, as the reader learns later, for stealing chickens and for fighting. Although unable to marry, Jim nevertheless “had come to an agreement with her any way,” and now he faces a charge of seduction which carries a life sentence. Jim’s interest in Ettie is more than sexual. Out of concern for her, Jim has bought coal and food for Ettie’s family in the winter and clothes for her. She needs him; as the minister comments, “she’s had the worst home in town and something should have been done about it long ago.” Nevertheless, the culture will not accept their union. After being arrested, Jim escapes from jail, harboring the vague notion that “if he could get out he could explain his idea to everybody and get people behind him” and his problem would be solved. Unable to concentrate, he cannot formulate his idea. He is caught and will presumably spend the rest of his life in jail, while Ettie will spend hers in an institution. Though Jim and Ettie struggle to attain happiness, they cannot overcome the forces that oppose them. The depressing outcome is relieved partly by their achieving, even for a brief moment, a sharing of their affection.

“Amuck in the Bush”

The naturalistic tone is found throughout the collection. In “Amuck in the Bush,” Gus Rapp is portrayed as an animal, controlled by his instincts. Fired from his lumberyard job, he seeks revenge by attacking the boss’s wife and five-year-old daughter. The attack is savage, and only because of his own awkwardness does he not kill them. After the attack, he appears as a mute and uncomprehending animal as he crashes through the forest. Eventually, he is drawn back to the town, where he is captured and roped to a lamppost.

“A Wedding Dress”

Many of the characters in A Native Argosy are dissatisfied and troubled by vague, unarticulated desires. In “A Wedding Dress,” Lena Schwartz has waited fifteen years to marry. Finally, when her fiancé has a good job, the wedding is scheduled. She longs for a dress that will show her to her advantage and make her desirable to her future husband. Unaware of her own actions, she steals an expensive dress from a store. Regretting the deed, she nevertheless tries on the fancy but ill-fitting dress. Still wearing it, she is arrested. Her fiancé bails her out and takes her into his custody. In “An Escapade,” a middle-aged woman is lonely and repressed. Because of the titillating gossip of her bridge-club friends, Rose Carew misses the service at her Catholic church in order to attend another service being held in a theater. During the service, she is sexually attracted to the man next to her. She does not, however, recognize the emotion; she only knows that she is uncomfortable. She hurriedly leaves, goes to her Catholic church, and prays until she recovers her equanimity. Both of these characters yearn for a change in their lives, but they cannot articulate their desires and are unable to initiate actions that might bring about the desired results.

“A Predicament”

Throughout Callaghan’s work appear stories that contain characters, settings, and conflicts that are familiar to Catholics. In “A Predicament,” a young priest hearing confessions must deal with a drunk who has wandered into the confessional booth. The man, thinking that he is on a streetcar, waits for his stop. The priest, ignoring him, hears confessions from the other booth, but it soon becomes apparent that the man will not go away and will probably cause a disturbance. The priest, young and somewhat insecure, is afraid of any embarrassment. To resolve the issue, the priest slips into the role of a streetcar conductor and announces to the man, “Step lively there; this is King and Young. Do you want to go past your stop?” The drunk quietly leaves. The priest is at first satisfied with his solution, but then his dishonesty bothers him. Earlier, he had chided a woman for telling lies, instructing her that lies lead to worse sins. Unsure of his position, he thinks that he should seek the bishop’s advice but then decides to wait until he can consider his actions more closely. Thus, he postpones what might be a soul-searching encounter. Callaghan, gently and with humor, has shown that priests are no strangers to human weaknesses.

In His Own Country

In A Native Argosy, Callaghan included two novellas. One of these, In His Own Country, presents a man who attempts to find a synthesis between religion and science. Although Bill Lawson dreams of becoming a latter-day St. Thomas Aquinas, he is unsuited for the project because of his overwhelming ignorance. Indeed, the task throws him into a catatonic state. Flora, his wife, is concerned first with the income that the project might generate, then with his neglect of her, and finally with his well-being: He does not eat, shave, or take care of his clothes. She longs for the days when they would enjoy the evenings together. Eventually, he quits his job because the small hypocrisies associated with newspaper work taint him, or so he reasons, and render him unsuitable for his grand task. He grows increasingly bewildered as he tries to summarize what is known about geology, chemistry, and the other sciences. At one point, he argues that he can reduce all life to a simple chemical formula. He even converts to Catholicism in order to understand religion better. Finally, returning from a long walk, he discovers his wife with an old beau and dashes out of the house. Flora searches for him, but failing to find him, she retreats to her father’s farm, a three-hour walk from town. Later, Bill is found incoherent on a bench. At first not expected to live, he is force-fed by his mother and eventually Flora returns to care for him. The town treats Bill as a marvel and admires him for the philosophical thoughts they assume that he is thinking. The ending is ambiguous. Is Bill a prophet, a saint, or a madman?

Flora as the point-of-view character is well chosen. Limited in intelligence, she makes no attempt to comprehend Bill’s thoughts, which ultimately drive him to insanity. The sparse, economical prose style matches the limited perceptions of Flora. Bill and Flora belong to the roster of marginal characters in A Native Argosy who lack control over their own lives.

Now That April’s Here, and Other Stories

Callaghan’s second collection of short stories, Now That April’s Here, and Other Stories, contains thirty-five stories that were published in magazines from 1929 to 1935. This later work shows the influence of Christian humanism, a belief in a Christian interpretation of the world coupled with a focus on humans’ happiness and an emphasis on the realization of their potential. In 1933, Callaghan spent many hours with Jacques Maritain, the French theologican and philosopher, who was then a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto. Maritain is credited with developing Christian existential thought as a response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s essentially atheistic existentialism. His influence led Callaghan to moderate the strongly pessimistic tone of his fiction.

Less naturalistic in tone than the earlier tales, these stories present characters who, while they still cannot greatly alter the courses of their lives, can occasionally achieve a measure of peace, contentment, and dignity. Unlike the inarticulate characters of the previous volume, these later characters are more intelligent. Matching this change in the characterization, Callaghan’s style is more complex; the sentences are longer and of greater variety as opposed to the pared-down style of the earlier volume. Yet while the style is more mature and the stories more optimistic, there is less variety than in the earlier volume. The stories presented in this collection for the most part follow a set pattern. The equilibrium of the opening is interrupted by a crisis; after the crisis is met, an equilibrium is again established, but some insight is achieved, all within the span of a few hours.

“The Blue Kimono”

Many of the selections in Now That April’s Here, and Other Stories depict the struggles of young lovers to overcome the effects of the Depression. In “The Blue Kimono,” George and his wife, Marthe, had come to the city for better opportunities, but since they have arrived in the city, their situation has worsened. Frustrated, George blames his wife for his unemployment. One night, he awakens and discovers Marthe tending their son. The woman is frightened, but George is too frustrated to notice his wife’s concern; all he sees is her tattered blue kimono. He had bought it when they were first married, and now it seems to mock his attempts to secure a job. Gradually, his wife communicates her fears to him; the boy’s symptoms resemble those of infantile paralysis. Immediately, the husband forgets his problems and tries to entertain the little boy. When the boy finally responds to the aspirin, the couple, who have weathered the crisis, are drawn closer. The wife thinks that she can mend the kimono so that it would not appear so ragged. Through their love for each other and for their son, the two have, for a moment, eliminated the tension caused by their poverty. In “The Blue Kimono” as in “A Wedding Dress,” Callaghan uses clothing symbolically. These items suggest a happier moment and reveal the discrepancy between the characters’ dreams and the reality that makes those dreams unattainable.

“A Sick Call”

In this volume, as in A Native Argosy, Callaghan includes stories that utilize a situation that is familiar to Catholics. In “A Sick Call,” Father Macdowell, an elderly priest, who is often chosen to hear confessions because nothing shocks him, is called to the bedside of a sick woman. Even though she has left the church, she, afraid of dying, wants to be absolved of her sins. Her husband, John, however, who rejects all religion, opposes the priest’s visit. John is afraid that she will draw close to the church and thereby reject him, thus destroying the love they share. Yet the priest’s advanced age, his gentleness, and his selective deafness secure for him a place at the side of the woman’s bed. In order to hear her confession, Father Macdowell requests that John leave, but John refuses. Father Macdowell seemingly accepts defeat and in preparation for departing asks the husband for a glass of water. As John complies, the priest quickly hears the woman’s confession and grants absolution. John, returning as the priest is making the sign of the Cross, knows that he has been tricked.

The priest leaves with a sense of satisfaction, yet gradually he grows concerned that he came between the wife and her husband. The priest recognizes John’s love for her and remarks on the beauty of such strong love, but then he dismisses it, calling it pagan. He begins to doubt his convictions, however, and allows that perhaps the pagan love is valid. In “A Sick Call,” Callaghan has again presented a priest with human failings; Father Macdowell relies on subterfuge in order to hear a confession. Yet the story is more than a character study of a priest; it is a discussion of what is sacred, and the answer is left ambiguous. Callaghan implies that sacredness is not the sole property of religion.

Morley Callaghan’s Stories

After a ten-year hiatus in writing fiction, Callaghan resumed writing novels and short stories in the late 1940’s. In 1959, he published his third collection of short stories, Morley Callaghan’s Stories. For this, he selected his favorite stories from 1926 to 1953. Twelve had appeared earlier in A Native Argosy, thirty-two in Now That April’s Here, and Other Stories; the remaining thirteen, previously uncollected, had been written between 1936 and 1953. Callaghan in the prologue writes of the stories, “These are the ones that touch times and moods and people I like to remember now. Looking back on them I can see that I have been concerned with the problems of many kinds of people but I have neglected the very, very rich.” These stories, as well as those in the other collections, show a sympathy for beleaguered ordinary human beings and an understanding of their problems.

“The Cheat’s Remorse”

In “The Cheat’s Remorse” (reprinted in the 1938 edition of Edward O’Brien’s Best Short Stories), Callaghan focuses on people who have been adversely affected by the Depression. Phil, out of work, is drinking coffee in a diner. Although he has a possibility of a job, he needs a clean shirt before he can go for the interview. Yet his shirts are at the laundry, and he lacks the money to get them. At the diner, he notices a wealthy drunk drop a dollar when he pays the bill for a sandwich he did not even eat. Phil waits until the man leaves. As he stoops to pick up the money, however, a young woman places her foot on it. She, too, has been waiting for the drunk to leave, and she, too, needs the money. Phil offers to flip a coin to resolve the issue. The woman loses. Having used his trick coin, Phil cheated her. Yet immediately he regrets it, tries to give her the dollar, and even confesses his guilt, but she refuses. She argues perceptively that a single dollar could not begin to alleviate her problems but it might make some difference to him. He feels so bad that at the conclusion he is eyeing a tavern, planning to assuage his guilt with alcohol.

The characters are affected by economic forces over which they have little or no control. Thus the story has some affinities with the earlier naturalistic tales from A Native Argosy. In “The Cheat’s Remorse,” both the best and the worst are depicted. Phil, selfishly, willingly cheats the woman, but the woman, ignoring her need, offers to help Phil. So even though she is affected by the same forces, she maintains her humanity and dignity.

“A Cap for Steve”

Callaghan effectively wrote stories from the point of view of characters who are limited in intelligence, and he was just as effectively able to employ a child’s point of view. In “A Cap for Steve,” Steve, a painfully shy young boy, is obsessed with baseball. His father belittles the sport, however, not realizing that baseball is Steve’s only pleasure. Grudgingly, his father takes him to a baseball game during which Steve acquires the cap of one of the star players. The cap changes Steve into a leader. Yet he loses the cap and becomes despondent. Later he discovers another boy, a lawyer’s son, wearing his cap, and he and his father call on the boy’s father. The difference between the two families is apparent immediately. Steve’s family is barely surviving, while the other boy’s is wealthy. Since the lawyer’s son bought the cap from another, the lawyer offers to sell it to Steve for the price he paid, five dollars. Even though five dollars represents a sacrifice for Steve and his father, they agree. Then the lawyer offers to buy back the cap because his son values it. At twenty dollars, Steve’s father agrees. Stunned, Steve will not walk with his father on the return home. Steve’s father realizes that he does not know his son and resolves to be more of a father. The boy accepts his father’s apology and is willing to forget the cap as “the price [he] was willing to pay to be able to count on his father’s admiration and approval.”

Although the story is set in the Depression and illustrates class differences, the focus is on the father-and-son relationship. The father does not accept his son until he comes close to losing his love, but the boy is willing to forgive his father’s indifference for the chance at a closer relationship. The emphasis is on the love that can survive under adverse conditions.

In 1985, Callaghan published a fourth volume of collected stories, The Lost and Found Stories of Morley Callaghan. The twenty-six stories in this volume were originally published in leading magazines in the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s. During the preparation of Morley Callaghan’s Stories, they had been overlooked, and in 1984, they were “found.” The stories are similar in tone, style, and theme to the work that appears in the other collections.

In Callaghan, the inarticulate and the forgotten—the rural and urban poor, the insane, and the mentally weak—have found a voice. Throughout his career, in a straightforward narrative style, he told their story. Although Callaghan might not have received the recognition he deserves, he nevertheless should be studied. As one reviewer has written, Callaghan “sits across the path of Canadian literature like an old Labrador, you’re not sure how to approach him, but you can’t ignore him.”


Morley Callaghan Long Fiction Analysis