Narcissa, and Other Fables

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2332

Narcissa and Other Fables is Louis Auchincloss’ eighth volume of short stories. As he has done before, Auchincloss demonstrates his mastery of all the elements of his craft: characterization, articulation of manners and mores, manipulation of plot (including ironic twists and turns), and handling of point of view. Auchincloss’ stories are tidy, rendering with fine precision a people who consider themselves leaders, on the cutting edge of American society.

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The volume is composed of twelve short stories, four of which appeared previously in slick magazines, and twelve very brief sketches in the manner of the “character,” a literary form that flourished in France and England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some of which also were published first in a popular magazine. Auchincloss’ stories are, for the most part, short, easy to read, and have a quick payoff in terms of the revelation of meaning. This is not to suggest that his stories operate without subtlety, but rather to make the point that there is just enough subtlety in the majority of the stories for the reader to feel an immediate satisfaction in having understood what is not too carefully concealed.

The story “Equitable Awards” is a case in point. As the story opens, Gwendolen Burrill—to whose point of view the third-person narration is limited—faces her lawyer across the expanse of a broad desk. Nothing in the office expresses the personality of its occupant; not until some paragraphs into the story does the reader learn that the lawyer is a woman. In the first few paragraphs, Auchincloss skillfully reveals character, situation, and conflict. Gwendolen is forty-five, her girlish attributes fading; she is seeking a divorce settlement from her husband, who has neglected her. The lawyer, Miriam Storrs, in explaining to Gwen the 1980 divorce law, becomes “carried away,” urging her to press for a “fifty-fifty split” across the board. As Miriam explains, Gwen “lifted the weight of [her husband’s] private life off his hands,” allowing him to spend all of his time working. Gwen, feeling cast off, her life wasted, contemplates her lawyer—the very model of a contemporary woman, professional yet very feminine in appearance, married, planning children, yet having her own career. The lawyer’s logic prevails, and Gwen, feeling slightly dissatisfied, acquiesces to Miriam’s plan of attack.

Gwen’s walk home allows Auchincloss to accomplish necessary exposition as she recalls the circumstances of her marriage. Native New Yorkers and wealthy too, her parents had never thought Sidney good enough to marry their daughter—this man who came from nowhere and had to work hard in his law firm to gain a place and stay there. Gwen recalls that Sidney urged her to find work, gainful employment as opposed to “made” work; he tried to point out to her that moral behavior prior to the making of a fortune could be different from moral behavior as defined by people who inherited a fortune. By the next morning, Gwen has concluded that Sidney is not totally to blame for the failure of their marriage.

That morning, Gwen again faces Miriam Storrs, whose smile is now “a trifle mechanical.” When Miriam makes the point that Gwen’s feelings of guilt concerning the marriage have nothing to do with the law, Gwen knows that she has to confess an adulterous affair with a tennis pro in Paris, where Gwen had hoped that she and Sidney could start their lives afresh and she could help him in his career. Auchincloss uses a quick flashback here to dramatize Gwen’s confession to her husband and her utter despair. Sidney is compassionate and consoling, blaming himself, and they experience passion for the first time since their honeymoon.

Miriam’s sharp voice breaks the flashback; her interest is entirely in the law. In making love to Gwen, Miriam says, Sidney implicitly condoned the adultery. As Gwen walks home again after her second session with the lawyer, she recalls how, when she and Sidney returned from Paris, their marriage worsened until Sidney moved out, notifying Gwen by letter.

A third parallel scene in the lawyer’s office finds Gwen and her lawyer facing Sidney and his lawyer, “a Miss Hester Pearson,” an associate of his law firm. Pearson makes the essential point: Gwen and Sidney’s generation was probably the last in which couples entered marriage with the woman believing that “home could be all” and the man believing that “home could be nothing.” Sidney, it appears, will not accept the premise put forward by Gwen’s lawyer, and Sidney’s lawyer argues that he should not be expected to do so. All that he wants is an equitable award. So, of course, does Gwen, and this time on her walk home she stops at her parents’ house to allow them to offer their sympathy and total support. Still, Gwen believes that she is not entitled to what she is asking. She calls her lawyer to tell her so, but Miriam gives her another piece of information—that Sidney and his attorney, Hester Pearson, are lovers and that they plan to marry. This information infuriates Gwen, and for an hour her mind is a battlefield—the forces of right and reason (Sidney’s side) lined up against the forces of self-pity, jealousy, and hate. The latter forces win. Gwen calls her attorney to tell her to charge Sidney with adultery.

The final twist is more subtle than the penultimate one. Miriam’s voice has “a flat tone.” She has anticipated the call, knowing that her logic, that of the law, would not prevail but that the emotional appeal to jealousy would.

A less successful story is “The Cup of Coffee.” Here, Auchincloss starts with a premise: “The world is composed of two kinds of people: those who want things badly enough to sacrifice human dignity to obtain them, and those who do not.” The first-person narrator of this story does not, and the events of the story accumulate to explain situation, conflict, and resolution. The narrator, Tommy Trimbolt, is an organization man; he lives in the right kind of house in a suburb called New Canaan, has the right religion, has a wife who is a homemaker, and the correct number of children—two, a boy and a girl—who are, like many young people of the early 1970’s, rejecting their parents’ world, the boy at Yale University, wanting to be a professional guitarist, the girl at New York University, wanting to blow up the world.

As an organization man, Tommy is required to worship at the altar of his boss, Denis Crater, even to the extent of allowing himself to be denigrated (to have his bolt trimmed). For a long time, Tommy has avoided the ritual denigration that takes place at staff meetings: Crater empties the remains of his coffee into a neighbor’s cup. Tommy has been successful in avoiding the “coffee slop” by coming in late and by not sitting close to Crater or by not drinking coffee. One day, however, Crater arranges the ritual so that Tommy cannot escape, and Tommy finds himself the butt of the joke. Two things happen to complicate the situation: A journalist is present at the staff meeting and reports the event, and Tommy finds that once the unnamed has been named, it is easier to handle. He can even joke about it. “It’s a kind of a ritual . . . I present the backside, and he presents the kick. Like the priest and the fatted calf. Does either really have a choice?”

His family objects; they are being made the butt of jokes. Tommy tries to explain that this ceremony is present everywhere, but no one will accept his argument—not even Denis Crater, who invents a reason for his despicable behavior. The coffee slops are a test for executives, Crater says, a test that no one has passed. Tommy, however, does pass; he decides that he does not need promotion badly enough to fawn and prostrate himself, and he tells Crater so, even refusing Crater’s offer to stay with the company and prosper. Thus, Tommy kicks himself out of New Canaan.

Other stories make similar points about the moral dilemmas of the age. “The Seagull” takes the form of a letter of resignation from a minister to his bishop; he explains how he found himself in the position of committing adultery for the greater good. In “The Ghost of Hamlet’s Ghost,” a professor finds the strength to resist a situation fraught with moral danger. In “The Fabbri Tape,” a lawyer reaffirms a decision he made forty years before on practical rather than ethical grounds. In “Charade,” a young woman is willing to marry the homosexual son of a socially prominent family as long as they do not know the real situation. She refuses the offer, however, when she learns that the family does know; knowing, they will continue to have the upper hand.

The more complex and subtle the image patterns in an Auchincloss story, the better the story is. In Narcissa and Other Fables, the title story is the best in the collection. Elise Marcy, the protagonist of “Narcissa,” becomes enmeshed in a network of conflicting values. Elise is the older of two daughters born into a “royal” family. Her parents live in a version of the Pitti Palace, and Elise secretly loves its immensity and dark, cool interior shining with ebony, silver, and bronze. The mansion is a shelter for her, its barred windows symbolizing protection. Elise is reared as a “princess,” and, when the time comes, she takes a consort, her cousin Sam Marcy. Elise’s sister Hilda, as befits royalty, marries a German count and moves to Berlin. Although Elise’s father is by then dead, her mother still lives in the mansion and accepts the notion that her mansion and her brother’s “chateau” across the street are symbols of a “financial and moral leadership in which all good Americans believed.”

Elise’s problem is that she cannot find a balance between aggression and submission. She wants to be master and yet yearns to be slave. She turns to art and becomes in due time a patroness of the arts as well as a famous muralist in her own right. She and her husband live, as befits a new generation, in a large, bright, and airy apartment covering the top two stories of a building. From the Marcy apartment there is a panoramic view of Central Park—a live mural, so to speak. Elise’s studio is also large and white, with bookshelves between windows and four large portraits of Elise on the two windowless walls. The mural that Elise is painting to depict the purchase of Manhattan by the Dutch parallels the Jean-Léon Gérôme Slave Market in Algiers, deep in her father’s study; the nude Indian in Elise’s mural mirrors the slave girl who is being sold to a crowd of Arab men in the Gérôme painting.

Parallel also to the studio-study, mural-painting is Miss Bacon’s School for Girls, formed from two amalgamated brownstones, which Elise also attempts to “buy.” Elise’s daughters—two large, blond, giggling girls in green blouses—are not replicas of the Indian-slave girl; in the school, she hopes to find surrogate daughters, symbolic slave girls, better at playing at submission than her own daughters are.

Though Elise poses as overseer of her late father’s books, her real purpose is an excuse to visit her father’s study and there to gaze in solitude at the Gérôme painting. For Elise, the slave girl is some great lady, captured by pirates. Inside her father’s study, Elise identifies herself with the slave girl and experiences the excitement and thrill of exposure and the delight of shame. Though Elise, as an artist, has worked with nudes, male and female, she has never really exposed herself, even to her husband. Finally, her husband turns from her, and she knows that he has done so because she has never given him “all of herself.” A vague dissatisfaction sets in, but she does nothing until her gigantic ego is matched by that of an elderly artist, Perry St. Clare. For him, she agrees to pose in the nude, to model his fantasy of a “castrating female. A glorious, icy bitch!”

Although Elise believes that she can act out both their fantasies in her modeling, St. Clare’s personality as a genuine artist is stronger than hers, and she steps into the role of castrating female, denying him the money he desperately seeks. Soon, however, her denial takes a different form, the plot an ironic twist. She cannot continue to instruct her lawyer to ruin St. Clare after he attempts to blackmail her for posing in the nude, for a painting by St. Clare hanging on the lawyer’s office wall intervenes. Elise stands before the St. Clare painting contemplating it, as she had previously contemplated the Gérôme painting, but where the Gérôme painting mirrored narcissistically her fantasies and sexual frustrations, the St. Clare painting mirrors her artistic aspirations. Thus, she finally submits to an authority higher than herself—to St. Clare, the true artist. Even in her anger, she cannot allow St. Clare to be ruined. In addition, she believes that St. Clare alone will give her the fame to which she aspires. His painting will give her life as the Gérôme painting gives eternal life to the slave girl.

The short sketches clustered at the end of the volume make similar moral points and mark out similar ethical positions. They are not short stories; they appeal to the intellect first, the emotions second. They do not last long enough to provide a reader a sense of duration, a sense of having been brought into an experience. They are, however, admirable “characters,” pleasant exercises in that all but extinct literary form.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 26

Library Journal. CVIII, March 1, 1983, p. 515.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 6, 1983, p. 8.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, April 3, 1983, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, January 28, 1983. p. 72.

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