V. S. Pritchett Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

V. S. Pritchett writes in Midnight Oil,I have rarely been interested in what are called “characters,” i.e., eccentrics; reviewers are mistaken in saying I am. They misread me. I am interested in the revelations of nature and (rather in Ibsen’s fashion) of exposing the illusions or received ideas by which they live or protect their dignity.

An approach to the short stories reveals that Pritchett is projecting comic incongruities. He captures the moment of revelation when his men and women recognize an awareness of their plight. His panoply of people ranges from sailors, divers, clerks, blind men, and shop girls to piano accompanists, wastrels, and the penurious wealthy. Pritchett concentrates on selected details with tart wit and irony in dialogue that characterizes those who people his short stories. Two highly discrete characters often interrelate to their despair or to their joy. With such irony, the reader may conclude that in reading a Pritchett story, nothing is but what is not.

One of the earliest collections of short stories by Pritchett, You Make Your Own Life, and Other Stories, already reflects the mature touch of the writer. Although showing some slight inconsistency, the tales attest variety in narrative, theme, tone, and style. Some stories are stark and Kafkaesque, especially “The Two Brothers,” in which a nightmarish suicide is the central concern. The longest story in this group is “Handsome Is as Handsome Does,” set on the French Mediterranean.

“Handsome Is as Handsome Does”

The focus is on Mr. and Mrs. Coram, an English couple, both of whom are unusually ugly. Their ugliness is their only similarity. He is rude, inarticulate, and slow-witted, and he quarrels with everyone. He is especially rude to M. Pierre, the proprietor of the hotel, insulting him in English which he does not understand. Mrs. Coram is left to play the role of diplomat and apologist. Soon after the English couple’s arrival, Alex, whose forebears are flung throughout Europe, also vacations at the inn. He is young and handsome and delights in swimming. Childless, Mrs. Coram views Alex as the son she might have had. Yet one day, she attempts to seduce him while he watches unfeelingly, and she, scorned, feels ridiculous. One day, the Corams, Alex, and M. Pierre go to a deserted beach that is known for its dangerous undertow. M. Pierre dives in and before long, it is apparent to all that he is drowning. Alex rescues him while Mr. Coram looks on, never even thinking of saving the innkeeper. His wife is silently furious at him. Later, as M. Pierre brags at the hotel about his narrow escape, Mrs. Coram blandly tells some recent English arrivals that her husband saved M. Pierre’s life.

Clearly, the Corams are loathsome people, but through Pritchett’s portrayal of them as wounded, frustrated, and vindictive, even grotesque, they emerge as human beings, capable of eliciting the reader’s empathy. Alex, protected by his “oily” youth, remains the catalyst, rather neutral and asexual. The aging couple, in Pritchett’s lightly satirical portraiture, in the end claim the reader’s sympathy.

“Sense of Humour”

Another well-known and often-quoted story in this collection is “Sense of Humour.” Arthur Humphrey, a traveling salesman, is the narrator. On one of his trips, he meets Muriel MacFarlane, who is dating a local boy, Colin Mitchell, who always rides a motorcycle. Colin is obsessively in love with Muriel. Arthur courts Muriel, who stops dating Colin. Nevertheless, the motorcyclist compulsively follows the couple wherever they go. Muriel says that she is Irish, and she has a sense of humor. Yet she never exhibits this so-called Irish trait. When Colin, who is also an auto mechanic, announces that he cannot repair Humphrey’s car and thereby hopes to ruin the couple’s plan, they take the train to Humphrey’s parents’ house. Shortly after their arrival, Muriel receives a call from the police: Colin has been killed in a motorcycle crash nearby. That night, Muriel is overwhelmed with grief for Colin; Arthur begins to comfort her, and they eventually, for the first time, have sex. All the while, Muriel is crying out Colin’s name. To save Colin’s family the expense, Colin’s body is returned to his family in a hearse belonging to Arthur’s father. Both Muriel and the obtuse Arthur feel like royalty when the passing drivers and pedestrians doff their hats in respect. Arthur says, “I was proud of her, I was proud of Colin, and I was proud of myself and after what happened, I mean on the last two nights, it was like a wedding.” Colin is following them for the last time. When Arthur asks Muriel why she stopped seeing Colin, she answers that he never had a sense of humor.

Critics believe that Pritchett in this story exerts complete control in keeping the reader on tenterhooks between crying and guffawing. The narrator, like the reader, never concludes whether Muriel is marrying Arthur for his money or for love or whether she loves Colin or Arthur, in the final analysis. The story underscores one of Pritchett’s favorite techniques: peeling away at the character with grim irony and even then not providing enough details to see the character’s inner self. As Pritchett declared, however, his interest is in the “happening,” not in overt characterization. Yet, in death, Colin after all does seem to win his love. Still, in the conclusion, it appears that all three people have been deluded. Some of the grim gallows humor in this story reminds the reader of Thomas Hardy, whom Pritchett acknowledged as an important influence.

“When My Girl Comes Home”

More than a decade after the end of World War II, When My Girl Comes Home was published. The mature style of Pritchett is readily discernible in this collection. The stories become somewhat more complex and difficult in morality, in situations, and in the greater number of characters. The moral ambiguities are many. The title story, “When My Girl Comes Home,” is Pritchett’s favorite short story.

Although World War II is over, the bankruptcy of the war ricochets on many levels. The “girl” coming home is Hilda Johnson, for whom her mother has been working and scrimping to save money. Residents of Hincham Street, where Mrs. Johnson lives, had for two years implored the bureaucracies of the world to obtain news about the whereabouts and the condition of Hilda, who was believed to be wasting away in a Japanese concentration camp. Now Hilda has come home, not pale and wan but sleek and relaxed. Only gradually does the story emerge, but never completely. In fact, because Hilda’s second husband was a Japanese officer, she survived the war comfortably. She does not need the money that her mother saved from years of sewing. En route home, Hilda met two men, one of whom, Gloster, a writer, wished to write Hilda’s story. The narrator observes, when he first sees her, thather face was vacant and plain. It was as vacant as a stone that has been smoothed for centuries in the sand of some hot country. It was the face of someone to whom nothing had happened; or, perhaps, so much had happened to her that each event wiped out what had happened before. I was disturbed by something in her—the lack of history, I think. We were worm-eaten by it.

Hilda sleeps with her mother in a tiny bedroom while she waits for help from Gloster, who never appears. She seems to become involved with a real prisoner of the Japanese, Bill Williams, who survived through the war, as he terms it, with “a bit of trade.” Some of the neighbors begin to understand that Hilda, too, survived by trading as well. At one point in the tale, Hilda begs her friends to save her from Bill Williams, and she stays away from her apartment that night. When she returns to her flat, she discovers that Bill Williams has robbed her flat completely and has disappeared. Soon after, Hilda leaves London and surfaces only in a photograph with her two boyfriends, Gloster and someone else. Gloster does publish a book, not about Hilda’s war experiences but about the people on Hincham Street.

The story’s subtext may suggest that it might have been better for Hincham Street had the “girl” not come home, for then they would have retained their illusions about her. The illusion versus reality theme is one often used by Pritchett. Mrs. Johnson, now dead, seemed to have kept the street together in a kind of moral order, now destroyed on Hincham Street. After her death, Hilda and Bill were involved in seamy happenings. In the Hincham Street pubs, the war is discussed but only fitfully and inconclusively because “sooner or later, it came to a closed door in everybody’s conscience.” Hilda and Bill, surviving the Japanese camps through moral bankruptcy, form a mirror image of those Englishman who became black marketers, malingerers, ration thieves, and hoodlums. Moral codes were shattered by...

(The entire section is 3680 words.)