Sue Miller Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Sex is the center of most of Sue Miller’s short stories. In practically every story, men and women engage in quite explicitly described sex, but seldom is the act successful as a sign of intimacy and union. More often, whether Miller is describing sex from the point of view of a female or a male character, sex is an attempt at control or an act of desperate illusion. For example, the story “Slides” is structured around seven nude slides taken of a woman by her former husband early in their marriage, which become irritating illusory images that get in the way of genuine intimacy. In Miller’s best-known story, “Inventing the Abbotts,” a young man has sex with a wealthy young woman to try to climb the social ladder, while she has sex with him to rebel against her parents’ control. In “Leaving Home,” sex is a desperate attempt to hold on and hold things together.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Miller’s short stories is her ability to assume the role of a male character and tell his story in the first person. Four of the eleven stories in Inventing the Abbotts, and Other Stories, including the title story, are told from the perspectives of male characters. This bit of gender ventriloquism has been all the more intriguing to readers because of the sexual drives of the men Miller creates as her personae. The effect on male readers is somewhat of a mild shock, as if one’s gender secrets have been found out. As Jonathan Penner noted, in a review of the collection, “When a female author employs a male viewpoint character to regard women, we are in a hall of mirrors, where sometimes we surprise or frighten ourselves.”

“Tyler and Brina”

The central character in this story, Tyler, is a typical Miller male; the first couple of sentences delineate his central characteristic: “Tyler loved women. He was in love with women.” Told in a straightforward, unadorned way, the story seems almost prototypical of a man who cannot resist women. What plot there is in the story centers on the disruption Tyler’s obsession creates in his marriage to Brina. She wants a divorce and leaves him; he woos and pursues her; she gradually forgives him, accepting that he cannot help himself; he continues secretly to have sex with another woman; Brina moves back in with him; the other woman comes to the house; Brina sees her, and the story ends with Brina smashing the bottle of champagne she had bought to celebrate their reunion.

One side of Brina’s face is dead, injured in a childhood accident. Miller uses this detail throughout the story as a metaphor to suggest that for her “some deep sorrow lay under every fleeting joy.” The metaphor allows Miller to evoke a striking conclusion to the story when Brina sees that Tyler will never change. She looks at him for a moment, the muscles shifting in the “live” side of her face, but when she turns, all he can see is the dead side, which shows a “vacant serenity as she looked down at the mess that lay around her feet.” Brina will probably stay with Tyler, but she will have to turn her dead side to him and the world to make it possible.

“Leaving Home”

One of the shortest and most lyrical stories in Inventing the...

(The entire section is 1335 words.)