(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Pacific” is the ironic title of this tale of war and is the theater of Lee’s battle, the ocean that separates yet connects the couple, and the seashore where Paulette waits and tries to work the miracle that will see to Lee’s safety. Helprin makes the reader wait for the last sentence of the story to find out whether she is successful.

Paulette and Lee do everything right and to the best of their ability. Lee tries to be the best soldier that he can be. In his military training, he marches for three days and nights and then stands guard over the rest of the unit. When sent to battle, he writes home that he will do his duty but refrain from unnecessary heroics that would put him in extra danger. Paulette is the one who, while essentially helpless, works the hardest at living a perfect life.

Paulette takes a job at a defense factory, situated picturesquely on the California coast, where she is a precision welder working on aircraft instruments. She works both obsessively, doing the job of two, and carefully, knowing that these instruments could end up in an airplane giving support to Lee’s infantry unit. She also keeps her spare time full by planting and tending a garden, choosing to carry her gardening tools on her shoulders the several miles from her home to the garden plot, suggesting a Christlike suffering and sacrifice.

Her job on the welding line gives Helprin the opportunity to take his favored light imagery to the limit. The flames and arcs of the welding are described as pure light, the very spark of existence. The assembly line, seen through the lens of the welders’ hood, looks like the birthplace of stars. This pure light compares also to the pure and intense love between Paulette and Lee and her intense effort, through the force of will, to create a miracle that will ensure his survival.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A factory dedicated to the production of war materials is located in an idyllic rural landscape on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in California, north of Los Angeles. It is World War II and most of the factory’s assembly-line workers are women, many married to soldiers who are far across the Pacific waging war against the Japanese.

One worker is Paulette Ferry, a young woman in her mid-twenties, originally from South Carolina. Her husband, Lee, is a Marine officer. While training on the east coast, Lee commented to Paulette that after the war, if he returned, they should go to California, where, because of the light, it would be like living in a dream. They did not have to wait until the war ended, however. Lee was assigned for further training at Twentynine Palms, in the desert outside of Los Angeles. With help from their parents, Paulette was able to accompany him, and they crossed the country by train, in perfect weather and north light, committed to embracing the experience as something to seize and remember in the event there was no future to share.

During the six months that Lee was at Twentynine Palms, Paulette worked in a defense factory south of Los Angeles. When Lee received his final embarkation orders, she moved north to the small town where the newly constructed factory was located. At the edge of the continent, where she would have a small house and a garden to till, only the air and the sea separated her from Lee.

Paulette, with her small hands, is a precision welder. Her factory produces altimeters used on American aircraft above the islands where Lee and his Marine comrades are...

(The entire section is 667 words.)