Style and Technique
To express a theme of spiritual paralysis, Ann Beattie uses flat prose that produces a low-key tone. The primerlike syntax of the first sentence—“The woman’s name was Natalie, and the man’s name was Larry”—matches that of the concluding one—“This was in 1972, in Philadelphia.” The narrative summary of the protagonists’ lives up to the events of the story is as unemotional as their lives are.
The title, “Shifting,” and its use as a motif throughout the story, is appropriate because the word indicates a change from the ordinary position, a change occurring after a significant period of time. The title identifies the almost accidental nature of the catalyst that initiates Natalie’s breaking out of her paralysis: inheriting a car with a stick shift. Her desire to learn how to drive this car becomes a move toward separating her life from her husband’s because she conceals her driving lessons from him. Although she frequently stalls in her driving attempts, she foresees her independence in her freedom to drive to the museum and to vote. Learning to shift becomes the external sign of Natalie’s control over her own life.
The ability to shift—to move positively in the dynamism of life—is identified with Natalie’s aesthetic ideal: the ability of an Alexander Calder mobile to be free to shift its position. The wholeness comprising these shifting fragments perhaps helps Natalie to work with the fragments of her life....
(The entire section is 426 words.)