Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The most interesting technical feature of a story powerful in its simplicity is one that generally is considered a flaw: that is, a lack of foregrounding. A term appropriated from painting, “foregrounding” refers to the added “weight”—length of discussion, intensity of emotion—given to certain scenes that the author considers, and wants the reader to consider, more important than others. Foregrounding may seem especially crucial in a long story such as O’Brien’s, one that spans four decades in the lives of its characters, but “A Rose in the Heart of New York” unfolds largely without major scenes on which to hinge the action. The daughter’s first sexual encounter, for example, is related in part of a sentence, less space than is devoted to baking a cake. Her marriage transpires and expires in little more than a page, not many more lines than O’Brien devotes to the mother and daughter mending broken water pipes.

One effect of this lack of foregrounding is that the reader infers that, for the woman, such daily minutiae as baking a cake or fixing a leaking pipe are as important—perhaps more important—than often brief and unsatisfying encounters with men. Another effect is the precipitous quality given the action. The mother’s and daughter’s lives slip by them in a rush, with no heightened scenes to provide revelation, only the understanding that too often women are born and die with precious little joy in between.