Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578

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In many of Ellen Gilchrist’s stories, the central character is a self-centered girl or woman. However, in “The Stucco House,” the protagonist is a young boy, but his self-indulgent mother is the same Rhoda who appears in many of Gilchrist’s short stories. She is introduced as a young girl in Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981). She appears in both Victory over Japan (1984), the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, and Age of Miracles (1995), which contains seven stories about Rhoda, including “The Stucco House.” The Rhoda stories have been assembled in Rhoda: A Life in Stories (1995), and Gilchrist chose “The Stucco House” as one of the thirty-four stories to be included in her Collected Stories (2000). Taken together, the Rhoda stories chart the development of Rhoda Manning from childhood through adolescence, marriage and divorce, affairs, and her career as a writer. Even though Rhoda, as an adult, is financially well off and talented, she is dissatisfied. She, as well as some of Gilchrist’s other female protagonists, is searching for an identity, a search often curtailed by the demands of a family. Although some characters find satisfaction and a balance between career and family, many do not.

In “The Stucco House,” Rhoda, portrayed as a writer with a drinking problem, considers herself to be a failure not only as an artist and poet but also as a wife and mother. She realizes that Teddy prefers Eric, and she sees her two other sons, who are at camp during the time frame of the story, as obstinate teenagers. Because she feels the traditional gender roles are too restricting, she does not want to define herself by them. She abrogates her role as a parent to her current husband, who willingly accepts it, at least as far as Teddy is concerned. She has one failed marriage, and her present marriage seems to be headed for divorce as well. She does not find fulfillment in her poetry or painting, although her photographer husband thinks her watercolors are promising. In many ways, Rhoda is trying to chart a course but is unsure of her destination. The extent of the difficulty that Rhoda faces in her search is suggested in the first paragraph, which contains a brief mention of a poet who committed suicide (a reference to Gilchrist’s friend the poet Frank Stanford).

Gilchrist in “The Stucco House” presents a dysfunctional family, but at the same time, she stresses the importance of family and community. Without such support, Teddy would not be coping as well as he is. Even though he lacks maternal guidance, Teddy has Eric who embraces the role of parent, correcting his grammar and providing food, albeit soda and pizza. Eric also welcomes him into his darkroom and encourages Teddy’s own interest in photography. He takes him on excursions to the mountains and to the beach. In addition, Teddy has the support of his grandparents who love him and provide needed discipline, which Teddy, a typical child, resents. Even Big George, the gardener, is part of his network of support.

Although Rhoda might not realize it, she, too, has a support system provided by Eric (at least for the time being) and also by her parents and her brother Ingersol, who wonders why she always disrupts things but still travels into New Orleans to attend to her. Thus the story depicts a woman’s desire for autonomy, but it also shows the consequences on those around her.