“The End of a Career,” by Jean Stafford
Appeared in the January 21st, 1956 issue of the New Yorker (subscribers can read here), and in Stafford’s collections
My guess is 4,000 words
This story reminds me of Patricia Highsmith‘s Little Tales of Misogyny, depicting as it does a character whose sole reason for living is to be a beautiful woman—or to put it more precisely, a decorative woman. But Stafford is never over the top the way Highsmith can be; she never makes her judgments too obvious, never gets derailed by bitterness. The story portrays Angelica with an objectivity that’s both funny (The Faerie Queene!) and genuinely sad.
Angelica is explicitly described as an artist. She doesn’t cultivate her beauty for social status, money, a husband, or a lover; she cultivates it for its own sake and quite uselessly. It seems to be an underlying theme here that this is part of the reason her pursuit comes to a dead end. Her doctor hints that if she had only managed to be beautiful for someone, to love and be loved instead of pursuing a perfectionist obsession, she might have found a way out of the trap. As with “Solid Objects,” it’s interesting to compare the fictional artist with the author herself, who writes for an audience and therefore perhaps has more hope of success.
On a reread, the remarks Angelica’s aunt makes at the funeral are very disturbing. It’s remarks like these that made Angelica the stunted, miserable, doomed person she was, and the aunt knows it. But who can blame her? What other tribute can be paid to someone so monomaniacal and so hollow?
Edited to add: It does seem a little ridiculous comparing Stafford to Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson (the other comparison I tend to make). Stafford apparently stayed on the more literary side of things; her stories never seem to try to unsettle you. But all three of them have a similar attraction for me, a sense of the strangeness of everyday life.