(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Most writers of fiction who produce what can be classified as literature, sooner or later, consciously or unconsciously, develop themes which in their various ramifications become identified with their work. With the early Sherwood Anderson of “I Want to Know Why” and the early Ernest Hemingway of the Nick stories the theme of initiation was established and reiterated; with Willa Cather in O Pioneers! (1913), My Ántonia (1918), and subsequent shorter pieces, the struggle of immigrants and pioneers to adjust to a new life in a new land provided a theme over and over again; and in the stories collected in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955), Flannery O’Connor makes it clear that her prevailing theme developed from a conviction that before there could be any illumination or epiphany her characters must undergo some devastating experience of a violent nature.

The Empress’s Ring

Like these writers, Nancy Hale also developed a theme or thesis in her work which one recognizes most clearly in its various ramifications through reading her stories not singly as they first appeared in magazines at irregular intervals but as they were collected in book form. When twenty-four stories published originally in The New Yorker and elsewhere were brought together in a single volume entitled The Empress’s Ring, the underlying theme which unified the collection as a whole clearly emerged. In “Miss August,”, a story about the mentally disturbed and emotionally ill and maladjusted, a psychiatrist tells a patient, “You are regressing. You are looking for something in the past and when you have found it you will come up again. You feel strangely because you are not living in outer reality.” Later the psychiatrist amplifies this statement so that both patient and reader may comprehend more clearly its full import. The reader is to understand that there are two realities: the outer “outer reality,” the practical world to which one can touch and document, and “the past,” which in these and other stories is also the world of imagination, made up of memories and illusions, which may be considered the reality of fiction.

In one way or another most of Hale’s characters in this collection—such as the patient in “Miss August” and the woman in the title story, “The Empress’s Ring”—are exploring their past, sometimes trying to resurrect a security they once knew, sometimes trying to free themselves from the world of dreams and illusions in an effort to develop the maturity which will enable them to live in whatever “outer reality” they must without loneliness, hurt, or defeat. This choice of alternatives provides thematic material for much of Hale’s work. In such stories as “The Secret Garden” and “Object of Virtue,” in which a desperately lonely young woman and an unhappy child seek understanding and companionship, the characters remain bewildered and confused because they cannot adjust to “outer reality.” Hale’s stories, however, are not always records of frustration and failure. In “The Readville Stars” and in those light-hearted recollections such as “The Copley-Plaza” and “Charlotte Russe,” the narrators who are looking back and reminiscing have achieved sufficient maturity through experience in living to view the past with humor, objectivity, and understanding rather than with regret and longing. When Hale’s women (the men in these stories are essentially negligible) are not immersed in the past searching for something, they are often acquiring self-knowledge in the present. In a beautifully written story, “On the Beach,” a mother during a morning with her young son realizes that an atomic world has not after all destroyed what for her are the deepest values; in such ironic pieces as “Sheltered” and “A Full Life,” a girl and a middle-aged woman dramatically discover unsuspected truths about their own lives.

If the stories in this collection represent variations and extensions of a basic theme, they are developed against widely different backgrounds: the North Shore and Litchfield Hills of New England, towns and villages of the South, hospitals and universities, a ballroom, and a highway motel. Whether Hale constructed her stories objectively or as first-person recollections, she quickly established time, place, and situation and created mood and attitude with great economy of language, demonstrating again and again that she was a most accomplished writer.

The Pattern of Perfection

In another collection of stories, The Pattern of Perfection, Hale presents a similar group of people, this time extroverts instead of introverts but still troubled and bewildered, trying to cope not so much with inner conflicts as with conflicts arising out of unsatisfactory relationships with others. For Hale these conflicts in human relationships—and in these stories the conflicts are usually familial, mostly between parents and children, sometimes between husbands and wives—are partially solved by replacing indifference and malice with the spirit of understanding and love. In the title story, “The Pattern of Perfection” (a wonderfully ironic title not only for this story but also for the collection as a whole), a house-proud southerner dedicated to her tradition becomes capable of understanding her daughter-in-law’s loneliness in an alien land; and in “A Slow Boat to China,” a mother made momentarily ill through suppressing manifestations of love for her son finally recognizes the need for yielding to natural impulses. When these conflicts remain unresolved (as in “A Long Summer’s Dream,” the story of a spinster whose life has been blighted if not destroyed by a dominating mother and aunt), the resulting bitter resignation becomes tragic.

In addition to theme, what contributes largely to the underlying unity of this collection as a whole and to the richness of individual pieces is Hale’s skill in fusing story and symbol, her awareness of the discrepancy between the apparent and the real, and her...

(The entire section is 2492 words.)