Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Offering an authoritative glimpse at an Old South that appeared, unaccountably, to have survived well into the first half of the twentieth century, and possibly beyond the midpoint, “The Old Forest” also offers valuable, though often conflicting, insights into the problematic civil and social status of women during the years preceding World War II, perhaps outside the Old South as well. Reminiscent in theme and tone of John P. Marquand’s novel H. M. Pulham, Esquire (1941), which treated similar problems of ethics and manners among “proper” Bostonians of the next previous generation, “The Old Forest” delineates the contrast between self-supporting, resourceful “working girls” and the comfortably reared daughters of the “old order,” no doubt equally resourceful yet denied any reasonable outlet for their talents save through the manipulation of those men who, according to custom, maintain them in a state of submission.

In “The Old Forest,” both the young socialites and their parents appear to hold such people as Lee Ann in a state of respect mixed with awe, even as they decline to accept or meet them socially. The mothers, it appears, are oddly envious, yet the daughters, exemplified by Caroline, feel just enough empathetic “sisterhood” as to perceive no real threat from the “independent” women of their own generation. The young men such as Nat, meanwhile, remain quite oblivious to the currents of change swirling about, aware of no anomaly in the fact that women whom they “cannot” marry are frequently better company, for good reason, than the women apparently “destined” for their marriage beds. The boys’ fathers, meanwhile, are quick to note among the ambitious young career women the same drive and quickness that they value among themselves. Nat Ramsey, even at sixty-five, finds himself caught between what he “knows” and what he might have learned, unable to make up his mind.