Robert Stone Short Fiction Analysis - Essay

Robert Stone Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Robert Stone has published a number of short stories and the short-story collection Bear and His Daughter. Many of his stories have been reprinted in other collections, however, and in the annual publication The Best American Short Stories. Stone’s fictional world does not initially look appealing. His stories deal with violent and troubling events: abortion, drug dealing, alcoholism, the effects of war. Yet there is a moral vein running beneath the surface of these stories—even when the world they reflect seems without moral structure—and many of his characters are desperately seeking freedom from their demons. One of Stone’s themes seems to be the consequences of early actions and the need for mercy and forgiveness—of self as well as of others. Stone’s characters are sometimes mad, often brutal—the surface of his stories has constant tension—but they are often seeking spiritual transcendence. His writing is spare, he renders dialogue beautifully, and it is easy for readers to identify with his characters, in spite of their troubled lives.

Bear and His Daughter

Robert Stone has published more than a dozen short stories over the course of his career, and his collection Bear and His Daughter brings together six stories written over some thirty years with the previously unpublished title novella. The collection includes “Helping,” which was also reprinted in The Best American Stories 1988, and “Under the Pitons,” which appeared in The Best American Stories 1997. The remaining five stories are equally strong and represent Stone’s fictional style at its best. Stone is a realist who captures contemporary American life in its starkest, often most brutal moments. In his minimalist style Stone often reads like Raymond Carver, but in his deeper ethnical concerns he resembles no one more than British novelists like Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene.


“Miserere” leads off the Bear and His Daughter collection, and it is a powerful story of contemporary American life and a ready example of Stone’s fictional style. Mary Urquhart, a librarian in a decaying northern New Jersey city, receives a call from her friend Camille Innaurato as she finishes work one night. She drives to Camille’s house, as she has done on earlier occasions. Camille’s brother is a policeman who recovers fetuses disposed of by abortion clinics and brings them to Camille, who then enlists Mary and Mary’s priest friend, Father Hooke, to inter the fetuses in a Catholic rite. On this cold night, when they arrive at Father Hooke’s rectory, however, they learn that he has changed his mind and will not perform the service. “’I think women have a right,’” he announces. There is an ugly scene in which Mary reduces Father Hooke to tears, and he accuses the women of violence and cruelty. They drive to a second priest, Monsignor Danilo, who performs the ceremony, but it is an unsatisfactory experience for Mary. The title of the story comes from the Latin prayer “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccate mundi,/ Miserere nobis” (“Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world,/ Have mercy on us”). In the argument with Father Hooke, readers learn that thirteen years earlier Mary lost her husband and three children in a skating accident when the ice on a frozen lake gave way, and the four fetuses before the alter remind readers of that tragedy. After recovering from alcoholism and then converting to Catholicism, Mary became a rabid antiabortionist, but her rage at life simmers just beneath the taut surface of this story. The prayer that closes the short story, “Have mercy on us,” applies to all the flawed characters here.

“Absence of Mercy”

“Absence of Mercy” is another story of violence—and mercy. Mackay is a young man in his late twenties working to support his wife and baby. The...

(The entire section is 1611 words.)