First published in the Southern Review in 1940, Peter Taylor wrote ‘‘A Spinster’s Tale’’ while he was still an undergraduate at Kenyon College. A rich and complex story, ‘‘A Spinster’s Tale’’ touches on Taylor’s recurring themes: family dynamics, gender conflicts, and, most importantly, life in the American South in the early twentieth century.
‘‘A Spinster’s Tale’’ is considered one of Taylor’s finest short stories and is often praised for its honest depiction of growing up in the America South. Yet because it was published so early in Taylor’s career, some critics believe that the story tends to be overlooked in favor of his later works.
The first line of ‘‘A Spinster’s Tale’’ reveals several important facts: ‘‘My brother would often get drunk when I was a little girl, but that put a different sort of fear into me from what Mr. Speed did.’’ The author reveals (as the story’s title also suggests) that his narrator is older now, that drinking played an important role in her family life, and that there is a menacing character named Mr. Speed.
The narrator, Elizabeth (named after her late mother), discusses her vague obsession with Mr. Speed, the town drunk. Elizabeth’s father dismisses him as a ‘‘rascal,’’ yet Elizabeth suggests that she will eventually confront Mr. Speed.
Elizabeth reveals some of her fears when she stands before a mirror, craving escape, whispering ‘‘away, away,’’ until she bursts into tears. She then sees Mr. Speed ‘‘walking like a cripple’’ down the street. Elizabeth remembers her late mother and tries to forget about Mr. Speed.
One evening, Elizabeth stays awake until her brother returns home. He offers her candy, but she reenters her bedroom. He follows and she smells the ‘‘cheap whiskey’’ on his breath. Crying and hugging him, she exclaims, ‘‘I’m always lonely.’’ The narrator recounts:
He kept his face turned away from me and finally spoke, out of the corner of his mouth, I thought, ‘‘I’ll come home earlier some afternoons and we’ll talk and play.’’
When I had said this distinctly, I fell away from him back on the bed. He stood up and looked at me curiously, as though in some way repelled by my settling so comfortably in the covers. And I could see his eighteen-year-old head cocked to one side as though trying to see my face in the dark. He leaned over me, and I smelled his whiskey breath. It was not repugnant to me. It was blended with the odor he always had. I thought he was going to strike me. (Excerpt from ‘‘A Spinster’s Tale’’)
Later Elizabeth confesses ‘‘something like a longing for my brother to strike me,’’ and she wishes that she had said to him languidly, ‘Oh Brother,’ (as if) we had in common some unmentionable trouble.’’ But Elizabeth then says ‘‘I would not let myself reflect further on my feelings for my brother—my desire for him to strike me and my delight in his natural odor’’; she wants to be ‘‘completely settled with Mr. Speed first.’’
Her brother comes home early the next day and Elizabeth acknowledges to herself that she has ‘‘come to accept (Mr. Speed’s) existence as a natural part of my life.’’ Sure enough, Mr. Speed appears, and Elizabeth’s brother even helps him retrieve his hat, which is blown off by the wind. ‘‘Mr. Speed is very ugly, brother,’’ Elizabeth says, but he responds ‘‘You’ll get used to him, for all his ugliness.’’
One afternoon her brother and his friends stop by the house. One of the boys, only a year older than Elizabeth, asks her why she doesn’t wear her hair up as young women did at that time. Elizabeth blushes at this remark and bursts into the closed parlor where her father and uncles had been visiting, not heeding the boy’s pleas to leave the doors shut. Later, Elizabeth is glad that ‘‘I was a bold, or at least naughty, little girl.’’
She is then lightheartedly accused of ‘‘flirting’’ with the youngest visiting boy and told ‘‘if you spend your time in such pursuits you’ll only bring upon yourself and upon the young men about Nashville great unhappiness.’’
At this moment, Mr. Speed appears. Elizabeth tries to express her fear of Mr. Speed to her father, who tells her that she must shut her eyes against some things then says ‘‘‘After all . . . you’re a young lady now.’’’
At the story’s climax, Mr. Speed runs onto Elizabeth’s porch to escape the rain. The maid mistakes him for Elizabeth’s father and opens the front door for him. After he drunkenly enters the house, Elizabeth stares at him while the servant begs her to run upstairs to safety.
Part of Elizabeth longed ‘‘to hide my face from this in my own mother’s bosom,’’ but another part wants to ‘‘deal with Mr. Speed, however wrongly, myself.’’ Elizabeth phones for the police, who come and take Mr. Speed away. ‘‘I was frightened by the thought of the cruelty which I found I was capable of, a cruelty which seemed inextricably mixed with what I had called courage.’’
Elizabeth’s father is angry when he learns that she called the police. That was the last time she ever saw Mr. Speed, but even in her old age Elizabeth is still clearly affected by him. The story ends: ‘‘It was only the other night that I dreamed I was a little girl on Church Street again and that there was a drunk horse in our yard.’’
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