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Tag: jean stafford

Short story: “Children Are Bored on Sunday”

“Children Are Bored on Sunday,” by Jean Stafford

Appeared in the January 21st, 1948 issue of the New Yorker (subscribers can read here), featured in their May 2008 podcast (here); also on Google Books here and here

Maybe 8,000 words—actually no idea

The great thing about fiction, but especially about third person, is the way a story can say things that the characters can’t. This story has a lot of scathing insights into the New York intellectual set of the time, even though its point-of-view character is incapable of trusting her own perceptions, incapable of articulating them, and certainly incapable of delivering them with the necessary aplomb and timing. Emma thinks there’s something wrong with her for considering these endless cocktail parties to be occasions for getting drunk; she thinks painters and poets are above drunken fist fights; she can’t bring herself to judge her sophisticated friends as harshly as she judges herself. So the story persuades us to judge them for her, and to relish the infuriating distance between what Emma perceives and what she believes.

It also contains this great evocation of the ugliness of opinions—being bombarded with other people’s, and being expected to have them oneself:

She feared that her afternoon, begun in such a burst of courage, would not be what it might have been: for this second’s glimpse of him—who had no bearing on her life—might very well divert her from the pictures, not only because she was reminded of her ignorance of painting by the presence of someone who was (she assumed) versed in it but because her eyesight was now bound to be impaired by memory and conjecture, by the irrelevant mind-portraits of innumerable people who belonged to Eisenburg’s milieu. And almost at once, as she had predicted, the air separating her from the schoolboys below was populated with the images of composers, of painters, of writers who pronounced judgments, in their individual argot, on Hindemith, Ernst, Sartre, on Beethoven, Rubens, Baudelaire, on Stalin and Freud and Kierkegaard, on Toynbee, Frazer, Thoreau, Franco, Salazar, Roosevelt, Maimonides, Racine, Wallace, Picasso, Henry Luce, Monsignor Sheen, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the movie industry.

Except for the language and some of the items on the list, this passage doesn’t strike me as dated in the least. It could be rewritten and set among hipsters or anarchists or any subculture where pronouncing judgments on “important” topics is a major source of social status and personal identity.

I love the wish fulfillment at the end. It’s one of those moments the short story form is made for capturing. Maybe they’re both doomed to alcoholism and despair, but I’m still counting it as a happy ending.

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Short story: “The End of a Career”

“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.

Short story: “The Interior Castle”

“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.