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”
“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 ways of ignoring failures of communication.
The characters in “The Ram in the Thicket” could easily be comical caricatures, but Morris is not concerned with types. His creations come alive through their idiosyncrasies, such as the Oriental rug Mother puts in the bathroom and the leftovers she refuses to throw away, carefully storing them in jars in the icebox, then forgetting about them, leaving Ormsby, when the contents have become moldy, to bury them behind the garage. Such details help create a sense of ordinary lives closely observed.
“The Safe Place”
“The Safe Place” is another Morris story incorporated into his longer fiction, appearing in a different form in Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960); it also has characters and situations resembling those in the short novel War Games (written in 1951-1952 but not published until 1972). A retired army colonel lives a dull Brooklyn existence with his wife until he is hit by a pie truck and almost killed. The cynical colonel spends his recovery in the hospital contemplating how life is full of senseless violence which ceaselessly swoops down upon the unsuspecting and innocent: “Life, to put it simply, was a battleground.” He decides that the only way to avoid the world’s dangers and foolishness is to stay in bed—“the only safe place.” In many ways, the colonel’s view of the absurd world outside the hospital foreshadows that in Joseph Heller’s death-obsessed Catch-22 (1961).
The colonel becomes interested in another patient, Hyman Kopfman, who has had an arm and a leg amputated because of a blood ailment. When Kopfman identifies the problem in his body as America, the colonel senses a kinship between them: “What Hyman Kopfman knew was that the world was killing him.” While the colonel is reserved, Kopfman enjoys talking about himself—apparently to himself—“as if he were somebody else.” The colonel listens in fascination to Kopfman’s account of how his family left Vienna for Chicago when he was a boy, of how Kopfman, as he grew, began wearing his small father’s clothes while his brother Paul wore their mother’s old skirt and peasant blouse. The boys rarely left their apartment, making it into a self-contained world, a safe place. Below their apartment was another safe place: a walled garden where blind people came to walk.
The colonel decides that Kopfman’s life has always been rather hopeless and that this hopelessness makes him lovable. That he is not aware of how hopeless he is touches the colonel even more. The colonel realizes that all Kopfman has ever wanted is to lead “the useless sort of life” that he has himself had. Kopfman’s case inspires the colonel to get well despite having nothing to live for, while Kopfman, with his hunger for life, gets worse.
“The Safe Place” displays some of the common concerns of Morris’s fiction. His characters always seem to be seeking safe places, as with Ormsby’s basement, which...
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