(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Shifting,” in the collection Secrets and Surprises, is about the focal character’s need for emotional change as well as her means of finding it: being taught to drive a standard transmission Volvo by a teenager who likes and perhaps understands her.

Natalie is in a bind: She has a rigid, controlling husband who does not even laugh at her jokes. Although both she and her husband have agreed to sell the old Volvo left to them by Natalie’s uncle, she puts prospective buyers off and secretly learns to drive the car. Sharing her husband’s car has been too restrictive.

Michael is a local teenager who delivers the evening newspaper to the old lady next door and is puzzled that Natalie’s husband has not taken the trouble to teach his wife to “shift.” Telling her, “You can decide what it’s worth when you’ve learned,” he charges her four dollars after her fourth and final lesson. She has allowed him, not herself, to assess a value for her lessons. Natalie finds the money she gave him neatly folded on the floor mat when she returns to the car two hours after entering Michael’s house for a drink: Shifting need not apply exclusively to driving.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The relationship of Larry, a graduate student, and his wife, Natalie, began when they were ten years old. They dated through college and married at the end of Larry’s first semester in graduate school. The emotionless tone in which this long period of time is recounted suggests that the relationship continued more out of habit than feeling. The two seem to have very different personalities and interests.

Larry is the ultimate planner. He plans their marriage to take place after his examinations; he teaches, attends classes, visits his friend Andy, a paraplegic Vietnam veteran, and his parents, cleans his car, and plays basketball in the gym—all on schedule. It is Larry who decides the couple will not have a baby until he has finished his master of arts degree.

Although Natalie seems to be passively complying with Larry’s regimen, she is actually an imaginative, impulsive, and intuitive person. She senses that Larry’s parents, especially his mother, do not approve of her because she does not center her life around him. Her greatest pleasure is to visit an art museum that contains a fascinating modern sculpture of intertwined figures. When Larry requests that she photograph their furniture for insurance purposes, she experiments with photographing parts of her own body. This incident illustrates her husband’s need for control over his life, and her own growing need to express her identity.

When Natalie inherits a 1965 Volvo...

(The entire section is 471 words.)