Short story: “The Interior Castle”

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“The Interior Castle,” by Jean Stafford

First appeared in Partisan Review (now defunct) in 1947; anthologized in The Best American Short Stories for that year (edited by Martha Foley), then in The Best American Short Stories of the Century (1999, Houghton Mifflin Company, edited by John Updike with coeditor Katrina Kenison); appeared in The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford and available as part of a podcast here

About 6,150 words

An astonishing story, containing some of the vividest stream-of-consciousness passages I’ve ever read. It opens with the main character in a peculiar mental state following a car accident. The hospital workers find Pansy Vanneman appallingly bland and withdrawn, but inside her damaged body she has developed a blissful and adoring obsession with her own brain:

Not only the brain as the seat of consciousness, but the physical organ itself which she envisaged, romantically, now as a jewel, now as a flower, now as a light in a glass, now as an envelope of rosy vellum containing other envelopes, one within the other, diminishing indefinitely. It was always pink and always fragile, always deeply interior and invaluable.

Along with the vaginal imagery, these meditations carry a strong religious tinge; the story’s title is borrowed from St. Teresa of Ávila’s guidebook on spiritual life. It seems clear from a detached perspective that Pansy’s newfound inner world is a reaction to severe trauma, yet the pleasure of being safely immersed in that world is so intense that we are lulled, along with Pansy, into a sense that the castle will stand forever. The only things that trouble Pansy are the fear of her surgeon, the pain of her injuries, and the occasional discomfort of her memories. She finds it easy to retreat from the physical pain, but her visualizations trigger an uneasy memory of being passed over by a man she once adored. (Ironically, it’s the color pink, otherwise a blissful comfort to her, that causes the association.) These vulnerabilities, physical and mental, are horrifyingly realized during the surgery to reconstruct Pansy’s broken nose. Under the anesthesia, she at first surrenders warmly to the surgeon’s prodding; then, overwhelmed by pain and confused mental associations, she feels herself being violated, stabbed, and robbed.

Pansy’s stream of consciousness wavers between blissful images and violent ones. Late in the story, she sees her brain again as a pearl, growing until it encloses her in a whole world of pink. But in the last line, she seems to have lost everything: “She closed her eyes, shutting herself up within her treasureless head.”

For me, the most disturbing thing about this story is the very clear look we get at the thoughts and actions of Pansy’s tormentors, mainly the surgeon, alongside Pansy’s thoughts and reactions. The story slips freely from one point of view to the next, letting us see firsthand that Dr. Nicholas is not a rapist or vivisectionist or “thief”; he regards his patient with puzzled pity and he sincerely wants to fix her damaged face. He does lie to her about the risks of the operation, but it’s partly out of the wish to protect her, and in any case his concern about meningitis seems trivial beside Pansy’s quasi-religious terror of damage to her brain. All in all he and the others come off as patronizing, amusingly imperceptive, but never vicious. Even Pansy thinks well of him: “Miss Vanneman did not question his humaneness or his talent—he was a celebrated man—but she questioned whether he had imagination.”

And it would take a great deal of imagination to empathize with Pansy’s private drama. She is so withdrawn and so mentally fragmented as to make communication almost impossible (I imagine this story would be particularly troubling to a compassionate doctor or caregiver). Late in the surgery, after inadvertently triggering Pansy’s greatest fear, Dr. Nicholson apologizes and asks permission to continue. Still awash in muddled memories, she gathers her rational mind together and agrees because she knows, abstractly, “banally,” that she will need her nose to live in the world outside the hospital. The scene leaves me with the unsettling impression that Pansy has consented to her own downfall, that the cruelty in the story is being done in complete innocence. Or perhaps worse, Pansy’s sanctuary may always have been an illusion, a very temporary refuge from the real world. I don’t really know what it means.