Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Nine Women, Shirley Ann Grau’s first book after Evidence of Love (1977), is a collection of short stories featuring the lives of nine distinct women, most of whom live a detached and often superficial life. The stories are tightly crafted, with few characters and spare character description. Grau focuses on the way in which each woman copes with a crisis in her otherwise vacuous life and manages to create meaning from it.

“The Beginning,” the first story in the collection, features two African American women—Mother and her cherished daughter, Princess. As protector, the mother treats her daughter as a little queen, the jewel of the Lotus. The mother who speaks in a “light, high whisper” is a good seamstress, smuggling cloth to dress her daughter elegantly as she reassures her that her absent father is really a Hindu from Calcutta. A resourceful, steely woman, the mother eventually establishes her own dress shop, using her daughter as a regal mannequin. Whatever disguised life she may have led, Princess becomes strong and resilient because her “castle and kingdom” are internalized.

In “Hunter,” Nancy Martinson, the only survivor of an airplane crash, faces the guilt of her fate by trying to find a way to die herself. In her warped sense of meaning, she tells Sam Flanders, a news reporter, that she should have died with her family but that instead she fell through a hole in time and now must find the right spot to enter. Thus, she anticipates death as a way to correct an irregularity. She flies obsessively, hoping to participate in an airplane crash that will ensure her death.

In “Housekeeper,” Mrs. Morton tells a story of her routine care of Dr. Hollisher, a man of sequential and obsessive interests who was unaware of her. Five days a week for nine years, she endured the work by concentrating on her memories and removing herself intellectually until the memories wore out. One day after she had retired from housekeeping, she learned that the doctor had disappeared forever in his dory and left his house to her. In the meantime, she had learned to live a rich life, still taking care of others.

“Letting Go” presents Mary Margaret MacIntyre, who at twenty-nine...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As with Grau’s earlier novels and short stories, there is a moodiness, a darkness in this work. Nine Women reveals the author’s ability to create portraits that should disturb contemporary readers, especially female readers. One asks, “Who are these women? Is life really so meaningless?” Readers familiar with the literature of Southern writers such as Josephine Humphreys, Lee Smith, and Eudora Welty delight in the portrayal of confident women, women with a sense of humor, women who not only can cope with adversity but seem to relish it. In contrast, some critics have complained that Grau portrays women who cope with life only by distancing themselves from others and from the richness of life.

An alternative analysis shows that these women can be divided into two age groups whose retrospection shows distinctly different attitudes toward life. The younger characters—Princess and Mary Margaret—confront the reality of their situations directly and gain control over their lives. Princess, for example, recognizes that, while her mother disguised the reality of their poverty and absent father, she loved her totally. Princess carries the magic of that intense relationship with her. Mary Margaret rebels against the smothering nature of her parents’ life and declares her own path. In doing so, she achieves freedom in her marriage and an inner direction. In claiming their lives, these characters are confident, competent, and sure of a larger context for their lives. The emptiness that many older women express is mirrored in the remaining characters, whose lives were controlled by others and whose remaining years end in daily sleepwalking. These stories are more than mere vignettes. Grau forces her readers to confront what appear to be bleak lives and to question the motivation that each character has adopted in life. Despite the seeming superficiality of these women, their provocative portraits linger vividly.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Canfield, John. “Women Alone.” The Southern Review 22, no. 4 (Fall, 1986): 904-906. Concentrates solely on Nine Women. Canfield applauds Grau’s craftsmanship and claims that she transcends her regional reputation.

Oleksy, Elzbieta. “The Keepers of the House.” In Louisiana Women Writers, edited by Dorothy H. Brown and Barbara C. Ewell. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992. In her comparison of The Keepers of the House with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), Oleksy examines Grau’s characterization of mature women.

Schlueter, Paul. Shirley Ann Grau. Boston: Twayne, 1981. This volume, although slim, is the most comprehensive analysis of Grau’s life and career through 1977. Includes a chronology of her personal and professional life, as well as a thorough bibliography.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Shirley Ann Grau’s Wise Fictions.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990. Critiques Grau’s publications, including Nine Women, and defines her as a Southern writer. Concentrates on her use of structure and style and on the theme of self-sufficient women.