Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ellen Gilchrist’s powerful and effective use of Rhoda as a first-person narrator helps to bring out these themes without making them hackneyed or didactic. Readers can perceive the hypocrisy in Rhoda’s brand of romantic idealism, but she cannot—which makes her delivery of it that much more effective. Gilchrist effectively combines character development with narrative tone that makes the telling of the story inseparable from understanding Rhoda as a character. Although she lives for such drama, the irony is beautifully rendered as her own shock at the magazines overtakes her love of the sensational, and finally, although perhaps it has affected her more profoundly than Billy’s rabies shots ever did or will, she does not disclose it in the same way at all. In fact, the narrative technique is one in which the disclosure is ironic. It is revealed by virtue of the fact it was never something she could figure out how to tell her mother, unlike the other things with which she rushed home in the hope of gaining approval.

There are also images in the story emphasizing the titillating sexual disclosure more blatantly exposed in the magazines: a glimpse of underpants from the monkey bars, the liquid hose that Rhoda’s mother paints on her legs, a bathing suit and towel thrown down on the sidewalk. Juxtaposed with these images of vulnerability is the rhetoric of combat used to fuel both the paper drive and Rhoda’s ambitions and fears. The rabies shot and the bomb are the core images around which this juxtaposition takes place.

Victory over Japan

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Ellen Gilchrist is good company. She is the sort of raconteur one would like to have along on a boring automobile trip or a slow afternoon at the beach. Her tone is intimate—there is an “I really should not be telling you this” sound to the prose—and her material is so entertaining as to be almost gossipy. She presents the details of her stories in a casual, offhand manner, often mentioning in passing a character whom she develops more fully in a later piece. By the end of Victory over Japan, a collection of Gilchrist’s stories which won the 1984 American Book Award for Fiction, the reader has come to know and delight in an extended family of mostly female cousins and their friends, Southerners all, tales of whose outrageous antics Gilchrist recounts with energy and wit.

The women in Victory over Japan are a richly varied assortment, interested in men and more interested in themselves. Gilchrist’s single characters long to be both thin and married; they fantasize about the “good girls [who] press their elegant rib cages against their beautiful rich athletic husbands.” Her married women are dissatisfied too. Their marriages provide economic security, but their emotional confinement is sometimes destructive of sanity. The state hospital in Mandeville, otherwise known as the “Loony Bin,” looms large in the minds of Gilchrist’s restless protagonists. In two of her stories, women are physically confined by their husbands and psychiatrists, and one narrator alludes darkly to a woman “that ended up in Mandeville forever because she wouldn’t be a proper wife.” This treatment of the enclosure and confinement of women in marriage places Gilchrist squarely in an important tradition in women’s writing, a tradition represented by such works as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1899). Unlike Gilman’s protagonist, however, Gilchrist’s women are hardly victims. There is a heroic vitality in her females and not a trace of guilt or shame. As one of her most vivid characters, Nora Jane Whittington, says, “I’ve never been ashamed of anything I’ve done in my life and I’m not about to start being ashamed now.”

Nora Jane is one of several characters who appear in more than one story. Her adventures in earlier volumes of Gilchrist’s work are summarized in the author’s note to the “Nora Jane” section of the present collection. A practical nineteen-year-old hedonist who has recently been graduated from the Academy of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in New Orleans, Nora Jane is involved with two men, either of whom may be the father of the twins she is carrying. Her boyfriend Sandy is tied up in a Laetrile scam with a wealthy older woman who is always saying, “Energy. That’s all. There’s nothing else.” The other paternity candidate is a bookstore owner who gives Nora Jane a baby-blue convertible and seduces her with quotations from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Nora Jane has decided to marry neither of these unreliable specimens; she plans instead to get a job in a day-care center where she can support herself and take care of her babies all at the same time. The reader last sees the pregnant Nora Jane in a station wagon on the Golden Gate Bridge; trapped there by an earthquake and awaiting rescue by the Coast Guard, she is comforting a hungry, frightened kindergarten car pool with her angelic singing.

The other memorable women in Victory over Japan are Rhoda and Crystal. Rhoda figures in the three stories that begin the book. Her father is the brother of Crystal’s father, and, although the reader never sees the cousins together, it is clear that they are cast in the same mold. Spoiled, rebellious, and sensuous, Rhoda and Crystal stop at nothing to assuage their curiosity or to get what they want. As a third grader, in the collection’s title story, Rhoda insists on befriending and then interviewing for the school newspaper a shy, tearful classmate who is undergoing treatment for rabies. Rhoda conflates these events with collecting newspapers for the war effort and with her memories of family arguments, her discerning naïveté offering a distorted but recognizable view of adult preoccupations. As an adolescent, in “Music,” Rhoda is given to dramatic statements and grand gestures. She flaunts her disbelief in God, smokes Lucky Strikes to defy her parents, reads Dorothy Parker, and longs to lose her virginity; she is, as Gilchrist puts it, at “a holy and terrible age, and her desire for beauty and romance drove her all day long and pursued her if she slept.” In the third Rhoda story, called “The Lower Garden District Free Gravity Mule Blight or Rhoda, a Fable,” Rhoda is in her mid-thirties, in the process of divorcing her rich, boring husband and still in search of adventure. She finds it this time in her seduction of Earl Treadway, a black insurance agent with whose company Rhoda has filed a fraudulent claim. In this story, Gilchrist subtly reveals both Rhoda’s and Earl’s motives, arising from the long and sordid history of Southern racism, as they maneuver each other into bed.


(The entire section is 2103 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The stories in Victory over Japan explore the conflicts facing women in post-World War II America, particularly in the South. In this, Ellen Gilchrist’s second collection of short stories, the author revives two of the characters introduced in her first collection, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981): Rhoda Manning, the only major character in that collection to appear in more than one story but whose personality was repeated in several of the other stories’ protagonists; and Nora Jane Whittington.

In the Rhoda section, the first section of this second collection, Gilchrist provides three more independent stories of her prototypical character: The first, a story from her childhood, takes place during World War II while her father is serving overseas; the second, from her adolescence, focuses on her conflicts with her father; and the third, from her adulthood, situates her in the process of getting a divorce. The stories are connected by the development of Rhoda’s sexual knowledge in each and by the oppression of Rhoda by her father or husband.

The second section of the book, “Crazy, Crazy, Now Showing Everywhere,” includes stories of Rhoda-type characters, with one exception, a story with a male protagonist, a rarity in Gilchrist’s canon. The section title reflects the connection between the stories of this section: Each one deals with characters who are experiencing some kind of mental breakdown.


(The entire section is 486 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In these stories, Gilchrist, like her precursor Katherine Anne Porter, continues to concern herself with upper-middle-class women (with some exceptions, including Nora Jane), particularly those of the South. Indeed, Porter’s recurring character Miranda may have served as a model for Gilchrist’s prototype. Gilchrist begins her later novel The Anna Papers (1988) with a suicide by drowning that, although it takes place in the 1980’s, calls to mind Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899). In following both of these earlier Southern women writers, Gilchrist picks up where they left off—that is, whereas Porter’s novel Ship of Fools (1962) ended in anticipation of World War II, Gilchrist’s work begins...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

International Warfare
During the 1980s civil war raged in several Latin American countries—often with at least a hint of U.S....

(The entire section is 300 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Point of View‘‘Victory Over Japan’’ is narrated in the first person by Rhoda Manning, a third-grade girl. Like many of...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Research the contribution women and children made to the war effort during World War II. What types of scrap materials, besides paper, did...

(The entire section is 95 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981) is Gilchrist’s first collection of short stories. Rhoda Manning makes several appearances at...

(The entire section is 123 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bauer, Margaret D. “Water and Women: Ellen Gilchrist Explores Two Life Sources.” Louisiana Literature 7, no. 2 (1990): 82-90. Traces the water imagery through several of Gilchrist’s works, showing how connection to water empowers the female characters and reflects their own life-giving capability.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, December 7, 1984, p. 38.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, August 1, 1984, p. 698.

Larue, Dorie. “Progress and Prescription: Ellen Gilchrist’s Southern Belles.” Southern Quarterly 31, no. 3 (1993): 69-78. Argues that the weaknesses of Gilchrist’s work are the author’s apparent approval of her heroines’ prolonged immaturity and these women’s consistent inability to learn from their mistakes.

McDonnell, Jane Taylor. “Controlling the Past and the Future: Two-Headed Anna in Ellen Gilchrist’s The Anna Papers.” In The Anna Book: Searching for Anna in Literary History, edited by Mickey Pearlman. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992. Explores the significance of writing and mothering in Gilchrist’s second novel.

Matthews, Betty A. “The Southern Belle Revisited: Women in the Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist.” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association 16, no. 1 (1990): 63-81. Holds that the source of Gilchrist’s female characters’ conflicts is their “tend[ency] to define themselves in relation to men.” The author also provides an insightful reading of the relationship between the recurring characters Crystal and Traceleen, noting that Traceleen is “the voice of common sense and order” in the Crystal/Traceleen stories and the only Gilchrist woman “undamaged by her relationships with men.”

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, September 23, 1984, p. 18.

The New Yorker. LX, November 19, 1984, p. 190.

Newsweek. LV, February 18, 1985, p. 81.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, July 27, 1984, p. 136.

Thompson, Jeanie, and Anita Miller Garner. “The Miracle of Realism: The Bid for Self-Knowledge in the Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist.” Southern Quarterly 22, no. 1 (1983): 100-114. This first article to be published on Gilchrist’s work provides a reading of the Calvinist elements in her first two books, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams and The Annunciation.

Washington Post. September 12, 1984, p. B1.

Woodland, J. Randall. “ ‘New People in the Old Museum of New Orleans’: Ellen Gilchrist, Sheila Bosworth, and Nancy Lemann.” In Louisiana Women Writers: New Essays and a Comprehensive Bibliography, edited by Dorothy H. Brown and Barbara C. Ewell. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992. Reads several of the Gilchrist stories (from various books) set in New Orleans, including “Looking over Jordan” from Victory over Japan.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Flower, Dean. ‘‘Fiction Chronicle,’’ in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp....

(The entire section is 68 words.)