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.
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...
(The entire section is 2332 words.)