Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 921
Although referred to in its subtitle as stories, Women with Men is in fact a collection of two novellas and one long story. That Ford refers to the works as stories is significant, for he has shown interest in the long story as a separate genre of literature.
The first novella in this volume, The Womanizer, belongs in the long tradition of “Americans in Paris” literature produced by numerous fiction writers in the nineteenth century and the 1920’s. It is ironically named, since the protagonist, Martin Austin, has been “temporarily distracted” by some women far from his home but seems for the most part unsuccessful in his relationships with the opposite sex. Although he loves his wife, Barbara, while in France he attempts to initiate a relationship with a Frenchwoman, Josephine Belliard, hoping to establish some connection that transcends sexuality. His attempts end in confusion and a minor scandal, and the trip he had looked forward to as “romantic,” a chance to open himself to new possibilities, turns out to be the opposite. Like other Ford protagonists, he wants to do good but fails to do so during a crisis involving Leo, Josephine’s young son.
Martin’s wife, who is “systematically optimistic,” exhibiting what he thinks of as the American attitude toward life, accuses him of being distant and unapproachable because “he took himself for granted.” Determined to make the rest of his life “as eventful and important” as what had passed, Martin feels a strong sense of freedom, a belief that his life is entirely under his control, and he is convinced that, although one must live with one’s mistakes, nevertheless “all is potential.” His temporary loss of Josephine’s son, left in his care, and the ensuing police probe leaves him feeling that he had lost “his newly found freedom” and the chance for something new.
The short story “Jealous” is narrated by Larry, who was nineteen at the time of the events he is recalling. Like Martin Austin in The Womanizer, he becomes involved in events over which he has no control, although his instinct is to do good whenever possible. On their way for a Thanksgiving visit with Larry’s mother, who is estranged from his father, Larry and his Aunt Doris wait for their train in a bar in a small Montana town. There they witness the police killing of a local Indian suspected of murderering his wife. Ironically, Larry has thought of a bar as having “a sense of something expected that stayed alive inside them even if nothing ever happened there at all.”
Like the protagonists in the other two works in this volume, Larry seems more acted upon than acting. He is keenly aware of what happens around him but seems unable to participate in it more than as an observer; indeed, his only self-initiated action in the story is to buy his mother a watch as a gift. When his aunt embraces him in a way that might be considered potentially sexual, he simply acquiesces and listens without comment to her confession about a lesbian relationship in which she was involved. He seems to agree with Doris’s statement that, “It’s not what happens, it’s what you do with what happens.” As his aunt sleeps on the train, he thinks that, “Maybe for the first time in my life, I felt calm.”
The second novella, Occidentals, again set in Paris, hinges on the various meanings of the word “translation.” Charley Matthews, a professor with one unsuccessful novel to his credit, is in Paris with a former student in one of his adult education classes, Helen Carmichael, to meet the woman scheduled to translate his book into French, Madame Grenelle. Estranged from his wife, Penny, and his daughter, Leila, he feels that he has always been “the center of things,” but now he wants to lose himself in whatever happens without being central to events, and Helen’s illness—she is a cancer survivor—gives him that opportunity. His beliefs reflect the idea of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that to achieve meaning in life, one must move from the aesthetic phase, where one is concerned only with himself, to the moral phase, where he cares for others. Charley professes to believe in things improving, and by the end of his experiences in Paris, he feels that his own life “is changing for the better.”
The translation of his novel, Predicament, provides the major motif for this work. He ponders the importance of “having a translator,” and Helen tells him, “You’re hoping to translate yourself now,” after he says that he is in search of “a new life.” Later, however, he ponders the possibility that perhaps he may somehow become (or be translated into) what happens to him in Paris. Near the conclusion of the story, after Helen’s suicide, Charley finally meets Madame Grenelle, who informs him that sometimes an author does not truly understand his book until it had been translated. Ultimately, he feels that he is moving into a new phase as a result of what he has experienced.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIII, May 15, 1997, p. 1540.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 13, 1997, p. 2.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, July 13, 1997, p. 5.
The New Yorker. LXXIII, December 15, 1997, p. 155.
North and South. December, 1997, p. 114.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, May 12, 1997, p. 57.
San Francisco Chronicle. June 15, 1997, p. REV3.
The Times Literary Supplement. August 29, 1997, p. 23.
The Wall Street Journal. June 27, 1997, p. A13.
The Washington Post. July 8, 1997, p. E2.
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