V. S. Pritchett

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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...

(The entire section is 3,680 words.)