John V. Hagopian (essay date July-September 1963)
SOURCE: Hagopian, John V. “The Technique and Meaning of Lionel Trilling's ‘The Other Margaret’.” Etudes Anglaises 16, no. 3 (July-September 1963): 225-29.
[In the following essay, Hagopian examines Trilling's narrative technique in “The Other Margaret.”]
When an eminent literary critic, especially of a moralistic Arnoldian persuasion, takes a hand at writing fiction, the result is rarely as distinguished an achievement as Lionel Trilling's short story, “The Other Margaret.” As is to be expected, Trilling's fiction embodies ideas and values which occupy a prominent place in his criticism. “The greatness of fiction”, he has said, “and its practical usefulness lay in its unremitting work of involving the reader himself in the moral life, inviting him to put his own motives under examination, suggesting that reality is not as his conventional education has led him to see it.” (“Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” in The Liberal Imagination, London, 1951, p. 222.) No statement could more aptly describe not only the effect of “The Other Margaret,” but also its substance; for in the story we see a man who, as a result of his contemplation of a work of art, is provoked into a ruthless examination of his own moral life and a rejection of the false values of his liberal education. More specifically, Trilling dramatizes the epiphany of a “moral realist,” i.e., one who has “perception of the dangers of the moral life itself.”
Perhaps at no other time has the enterprise of moral realism ever been so much needed, for at no other time have so many people committed themselves to moral righteousness … / … We must be aware of the dangers which lie in our most generous wishes … We have books that point out bad conditions, that praise us for taking progressive attitudes. We have no books that raise questions in our minds not only about conditions but about ourselves, that lead us to refine our motives and ask what might lie behind our good impulses.
(pp. 219, 221)
“The Other Margaret” is appropriately a serious, slow-paced, meditative narrative because the controlling intelligence is that of Stephen Elwin, a 41-year-old publisher of scientific books and an intellectual who cannot observe or act without considering the meaning of every gesture. Hence, the style is E. M. Forster. It is not so much the language but the events that have neither poetic nor dramatic, but meditative—à la Henry James and symbolic power. Two processes of moral education are delineated—the long, slow build-up to an “explosion of light” for Elwin and, at the end, the more swiftly developed insight of his 13-year-old daughter Margaret.
The first part of the story is made up of two public experiences of Stephen Elwin—an examination of a reproduction of Rouault's painting, “The King,” in the company of an art dealer and a young lieutenant; and a disturbing episode on a bus when a mean-spirited conductor cruelly mistreats two little boys. Later, these experiences are recapitulated in the privacy of the Elwin family. All this serves as an elaborate introduction to the heart of the narrative—the episode involving the other Margaret, the Negro maid.
Neither of the two men who observe the Rouault painting with Elwin really understands it or appreciates it. Mark Jennings, the art dealer, eager to satisfy his friend and customer, pretends to admire it but is really more concerned with the frame he has made. (Whether this was unconsciously suggested by Trilling's concern with the “frame” of his story is impossible to say.) The young lieutenant, who insincerely comments “Very nice,” is himself a considerable contrast with the fierce old warrior depicted in the painting. He hasn't the courage of his own convictions: “He used to be against anything like that [militarism]—he said he did not want to miss sharing the experience of his generation.” The art dealer and the lieutenant are not men who “ask what might lie behind our good impulses.” As for Elwin, he is attracted to the picture because he feels that the old king “had passed beyond ordinary matters of personality and was worthy of the crown he was wearing.” The king represents the very qualities that Elwin himself aspires to—wisdom and authority of experience and a stern sense of justice. Later, when he shows the Rouault to his daughter, she too rejects it: “It said something to her that was not in her experience or that she did not want in her experience.” The innocence of youth and the authority of age are incompatible; but at least Margaret is honest enough to admit she doesn't like it. The bonds of family love make it possible to avoid hypocritical politeness and to sustain itself despite occasional disagreement and differences of taste.
The second episode occurs aboard an ancient Didion bus that reminds Elwin of his youth. He has already been meditating about age and death, recalling with poignancy a line from Hazlitt: “No young man believes that he shall ever die.” Elwin realizes that he is no longer a young man, but if age brings an awareness of death it also brings a heightened sense of responsibility which only the wise can bear. As he meditates on these matters he observes two boys waiting for the bus; they seem the kind who “half in awe, half in rowdy levity, troop incessantly through the Egyptian room of the...
(The entire section is 2263 words.)