Themes and Meanings
The protagonists of Lorrie Moore’s stories are typically women who feel isolated in the world in which they live. These women, whether married or single, are unable to find true intimacy with the men in their lives and also cannot find any real degree of satisfaction in their careers or lifestyles. All efforts at self-help fail. The only thing that does not fail is their sense of humor in viewing their situations.
Zoë Hendricks genuinely tries to find satisfaction in her career and lifestyle. She is interested in the subject that she teaches and in her research on humor in the American presidency. She begins her academic career with the utmost goodwill toward her students, singing songs to them and allowing them to call her at home. When the small midwestern town proves stifling, she seeks diversion in larger cities and more interesting places. Zoë even buys a house but finds it hard to live in this house or to make it her own by changing the decor. She dates single men when the opportunity arises.
In spite of all of her efforts, Zoë remains isolated from virtually everyone—the academic community, the men whom she dates, and even most women, who somehow seem to find satisfaction in their lives. Her sister, Evan, for example, is happy in her relatively trivial occupation as a part-time food designer, one who prepares food for photo shoots. Neither is her sister particularly bothered by the degeneration of intimacy between herself and her future husband. Most people seem to like Evan better than Zoë. Earl, the man disguised as a naked woman, perhaps sums it up best when he expresses a preference for women who work part time over professional women. Women with brains, it seems, are not usually well liked.
Zoë’s saving grace, at least for the reader, is her ever-present, wry sense of humor. It is difficult to pinpoint any serious character flaws in Zoë that would lead her to such a state of isolation. She is perhaps a perfectionist who expects too much from both herself and others. The real flaw, however, seems to be the late twentieth century world, which allows women to assume professional roles but does not really appreciate independent, thinking women with an occasionally nasty twist in their sense of humor.
The American Midwest, known for its lack of ethnic diversity and socially conservative values, bears the brunt of many of Hendricks’s remarks and observations. Her town of Paris, Illinois, is one of ‘‘those Illinois towns with the funny names’’ people have to escape from every so often; her students in Paris are ‘‘by and large good Midwesterners’’ who seem ‘‘to know very little about anything.’’ The students at her first college in New Geneva, Minnesota, or the ‘‘Land of the Dying Shopping Mall’’ where everyone was ‘‘so blond . . . that brunettes were often presumed to be from foreign countries,’’ fare no better in Hendricks’s eyes. There everyone was expected to be a ‘‘Heidi’’ who would ‘‘lug goat milk up the hills and not think twice’’ and who would never complain. These Midwestern characteristics are the antithesis of Hendricks’s personality; they lead her to tell her sister, ‘‘Illinois. It makes me sarcastic to be here,’’ and they contribute to her alienation.
Academia has long been accused of being a bastion of male values. Hendricks teaches American history for a small liberal arts college in Illinois. Her department, which recently faced a sex-disY crimination suit, is made up of nine men who put up with her eccentricities because of the ‘‘feminine touch’’ she contributes to the atmosphere. This male environment, coupled with students she feels have little intellectual abilities, also contribute to Hendricks’s overall sense of alienation.
Hendricks lives alone, does not feel connected to the culture of the Midwest, has had no luck meeting men, and is not respected or understood by her students or her...
(The entire section is 1,850 words.)