Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386

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.

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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.

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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.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1464

American Midwest
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
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.

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 colleagues. Her constant cynicism and snide comments underscores the lack of connection she feels with her surroundings, and the only people she seems to connect with are her postman, who delivers mail ‘‘from someplace else,’’ and her cab driver who takes her to the airport on her regular escapes from her small Midwest town.

Loneliness and Isolation
At Christmas, Hendricks gives large tips both to the cab driver who takes her to the airport for her frequent weekend escapes and to the postman who delivers her letters which she reads again and again in her bed. Every Tuesday she phones her sister in New York and often flies to visit her on weekends. She also has her television in her bedroom, a selfadmitted ‘‘bad sign,’’ and she has not had a successful date since moving to the Midwest. The loneliness and isolation Hendricks experiences are partly the result of the disconnection she feels from her surroundings and possibly due to issues of emotional and mental instability that the story hints at.

Mental and Emotional Instability
Although there is no explicit discussion of Hendricks being unstable, nevertheless she makes several inappropriate comments and performs several questionable acts that can possibly be attributed to mental or emotional instability. Many of the sarcastic comments she makes to her students are professionally inappropriate and border on being hurtful, and her sharing of stories that end in a violent suicide or death seems to hint at larger issues of depression she may be experiencing. At her home she tacks a sign to a tree in her backyard that says, ‘‘Zoë’s Tree’’; she returns a mirror to the store because it had been frightening her ‘‘with an image of a woman she never recognized’’; and she also returns an Oriental rug because she convinces herself that the Chinese symbols on it say ‘‘Bruce Springsteen.’’ While some of these acts may merely indicate an ‘‘eccentric’’ personality, others, such as her final act of shoving Earl against the balcony rail 20 stories above the street, push the boundaries of eccentricity and reveal a woman who is out of control with her emotions and who does not have the ability to know when a joke goes too far.

Absurdity and Meaninglessness
One of the reasons for Hendricks’s constant barrage of jokes could be her inherent nihilism, her view that life is essentially absurd and meaningless. If others don’t understand her or her jokes, or if the jokes backfire, it doesn’t matter because, in her opinion, life is essentially meaningless anyway. A telling moment in the story to indicate that Hendricks suffers existentially occurs when she describes to herself the trick to flying safe. Never buy discount tickets, she suggests, and ‘‘tell yourself you [have] nothing to live for anyway, so that when the plane crashed it was no big deal.’’ And if the plane doesn’t crash, by the time the cab arrives to take you and your baggage away, you will have had time to ‘‘come up with a persuasive reason to go on living.’’

Illness
Hendricks is clearly suffering from what could be a serious illness. Severe abdominal pains force her to undergo ultrasound tests. While the results of the test are not revealed, at one point the technician becomes ‘‘suddenly alert’’ with his machine ‘‘clicking away,’’ and Hendricks is convinced that she has a ‘‘growth.’’ She decides not to mention the test to her sister, but during the Halloween party, she is forced to leave her conversation with Earl because of her pain, and her stories and jokes are full of allusions to death.

Mortality
The title of the story is taken from Hendricks’s favorite joke, which is about a patient who is told by the doctor that he has six weeks to live. Throughout the story, Hendricks alludes to death—either her own or that of someone she knows. At one point, just prior to her ultrasound tests, she tells her sister that she feels like she’s dying—a statement Hendricks intends more literally than her sister can understand.

Irony
Throughout the story, Hendricks makes her students and her dates the brunt of her jokes. Somewhat smugly, she believes she is being ironic, using ‘‘gently layered and sophisticated’’ wit in their telling, but ironically, her students, whom she believes ‘‘know very little about anything,’’ understand the difference between irony and sarcasm and accuse Hendricks of the latter, which Hendricks ultimately admits to. Another ironic aspect of the story relates to Hendricks’s existential crisis. Many of her stories and quips point to her belief in the ultimate meaninglessness of life; if she does in fact have an abdominal growth and if she is in fact dying, as she believes, Hendricks may have a chance to discover first-hand whether life does in fact have meaning.

Sexual Relationships
One one level, ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too’’ is about a woman trying to find love, but through her actions and the stories and jokes she tells, it is clear that Zoé has little faith that men and women can live or love together harmoniously. At the hospital, she wonders aloud with the technician performing her ultrasound test whether the rise of infertility in the country is the result of ‘‘completely different species trying to reproduce.’’ Indeed, from her descriptions of her dates, and from her final interaction at the Halloween party with Earl, it seems that Hendricks believes that men and women are not ultimately made for one another and that healthy sexual relationships, particularly if the woman is to retain her own sense of individuality and identity apart from the man, are impossible.

Role of Women
One of the underlying issues in Hendricks’s life is connected to the fact that she is unmarried, that she has yet to take on the role of ‘‘wife,’’ and she refuses or has the inability to be a ‘‘good date’’ for the men she meets. ‘‘Oh, my God. . . . I forgot to get married,’’ she sarcastically tells her sister, who will soon reveal her own marriage plans to Hendricks. However, she is able, as expected of her, to add a ‘‘feminine touch’’ to her mostly male history department. Hendricks is obviously cynical about traditional female roles; she prefers to live her life as she pleases with utter disregard for the opinions of others. When her cutting remarks and sarcasm become too much for Earl at the Halloween party, he blurts out, ‘‘You know, I shouldn’t try to go out with career women. You’re all stricken. . . . I do better with women who have part-time jobs.’’ He later turns away from Hendricks and mumbles, ‘‘Live and learn,’’ to which Hendricks responds by saying, ‘‘Live and get dumb.’’ While her final act of shoving Earl against the balcony railing can be seen as the act of an unstable personality, it can also be interpreted as Hendricks’s response to Earl’s complaint that ‘‘hormones’’ metaphorically being sprayed around is preventing men from wanting to have intercourse with women, as if the man’s desire is the all-important part of the equation while the woman has no say in the matter.

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