Thomas Bailey Aldrich Short Fiction Analysis
Thomas Bailey Aldrich is primarily remembered in literary histories because of the effect of one story; however, that one story, “Marjorie Daw,” like those of other “one-story” writers—such as Frank Stockton, who wrote “The Lady or the Tiger,” and Shirley Jackson, who wrote “The Lottery”—brilliantly manages to exploit a basic human fascination with the blurring of fiction and reality. Often called a masterpiece of its type, “Marjorie Daw” clearly epitomizes the kind of story that O. Henry popularized more than half a century later—a story that seduces the reader into believing that a purely fictional creation is actually reality, only to reveal the ruse in a striking surprise reversal at the end.
Aldrich’s remaining stories, like much of his vers de société, are lightweight and romantic. Generally, they are witty and amusing sketches and tales that do not pretend to have any submerged meaning or symbolic significance. They are so unremarkable, in fact, that Aldrich’s restrained and self-consciously literary creation of “Marjorie Daw” seems like a fortunate inspirational accident. It is so well crafted, so controlled, and so aware of itself as a self-reflexive play with the basic nature of fiction that it will always remain a favorite anthology piece to represent the surprise-ending story so widely popular during the last half of the nineteenth century.
This story achieved its initial popularity and has remained a representative of the well-made, surprise-ending story because Aldrich so masterfully manipulates reader fascination with imaginative creation taken as reality. Aldrich achieves this deception, which lies at the heart of all fictional creation, by setting up a situation in which the fictional “reader,” Flemming, cannot test the reality of the story his friend Delaney sends him via letters because of a broken leg.
Throughout the story, Aldrich makes use of various conventions of fiction-making beginning with Delaney’s first letter apologizing that there is nothing to write about since he is living out in the country with no one around. Claiming he wishes he were a novelist so he could write Flemming a “summer romance,” Delaney then begins composing by asking Flemming to “imagine” the reality he recounts. After beginning a description of the house across the road from him, Delaney shifts to present tense, as if describing something he sees in reality: “A young woman appears on the piazza with some mysterious Penelope web of embroidery in her hand, or a book.” Although the description begins generally, it is enough to catch Flemming, who writes back wanting to know more about the girl, telling Delaney he has “a graphic descriptive touch.”
Delaney begins then to create a family for the girl and a name—Marjorie Daw. Although he provides various clues that what he is describing does not exist in the real world, such as noting that it was like “seeing a picture” to see...
(The entire section is 1238 words.)