Wright Morris Short Fiction Analysis
Wright Morris’s novels, to a large extent, are about what it means to be American. They examine the unrelenting grasp of the American Dream and the often bizarre ways in which people attempt to live up to this ideal, which they only vaguely understand. His stories are more concerned with the everyday details of life, though these may be bizarre as well. They are stories of character and mood more than plot or theme, written in a style which manages to be distinctive without calling attention to itself.
While the majority of his novels have Nebraska and California as their settings, Morris’s short fiction roams all over the United States and Europe, presenting characters with extremely varied social, economic, educational, and ethnic backgrounds. Morris wrote stories sporadically for the first quarter century of his career, taking up the form in earnest only in 1969. Unusual among American writers for having refined his short-story skills after becoming firmly established as a novelist, he has produced his best stories since turning seventy.
These stories look at the quiet side of the emotional turmoil people put themselves through each day. Such themes as the inability to communicate with or understand or feel for one another, loneliness, and the failure of relationships are presented without nostalgia for some simpler past, with little sentimentality or anger. Morris’s objective stance toward the world of his characters creates a comic, compassionate, quirkily individualistic body of short fiction.
“The Ram in the Thicket,” Morris’s first published and best-known story, is an early version of what became the first two chapters of Man and Boy (1951), but it stands on its own as a memorable portrait of one of Morris’s frequent subjects in his early fiction: a weak husband in the grasp of a domineering wife. Roger Ormsby and his wife, known as Mother, are depicted preparing to go to the christening of the SS Ormsby, named for their only child, Virgil, missing in action during World War II.
The need to conceal emotions characterizes Ormsby and Mother, neither of whom allows the other to guess how they feel about their son’s death. Although hearing that Virgil has been killed seems strangely “natural” to his father, Ormsby has “not been prepared to feel what he felt. Mother need never know it unless he slipped up and talked in his sleep.” Mother, without saying so, blames Ormsby for the boy’s death, since he gave Virgil an air rifle years earlier, thereby conditioning him for war. Since that time, she has considered them united against her, calling them they or you plural as if they were twin halves of a conspiracy: “Though the boy had been gone two years he still felt him there, right beside him, when Mother said you.”
From the time of the air rifle, both father and son felt greater emotional distance from Mother, Virgil spending as much time as possible out-of-doors, Ormsby seeking solitude with his pipe in the basement. Once, Ormsby is surprised to find his son in his refuge, and the experience becomes the closest they ever share: “For two, maybe three minutes, there in the dark, they had been what Mother called them, they were they—and they were there in the basement because they were so much alike.” When Ormsby receives the telegram he knows will tell him of Virgil’s death, he takes it to the basement to read.
Mother is nationally prominent for her interest in bird-watching and is constantly involved in that activity, the League of Women Voters, and other organizations and causes. She understands wildlife and politics better than she does those closest to her. She enjoys saying, in jest, that she prefers shoes to men but is actually truthful, since clothing is less complicated than people. Causes are her shelter as much as the basement is her husband’s. Yet neither character is being held up to ridicule; the typical Morris character looks for excuses to hide his feelings, for...
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