Katherine Mansfield: Stories

Mansfield’s stories are remarkable for their clarity of image, their stirrings of stream of consciousness, and the way in which they resonate with the work of Virginia Woolf.

“PRELUDE,” 1918

Lottie and Kezia are moving away. Kezia is startled when she goes back into the house to get something. Aunt Beryl and the grandmother put Lottie, Kezia, and Isabel to bed together. The grandmother washes dishes and recalls Beryl being stung by red ants when they lived in Tasmania. The children play at being grown-ups. Kezia tells her cousin to “put head back on” the duck he has decapitated. They eat the duck for tea. The story ends with Beryl writing a letter to her ‘nan’ saying she is bored and false in the country. Kezia calls her to dinner and marvels that a jar of cream that flies off the dresser does not break.

“BLISS,” 1920

Bertha Young’s consciousness unfolds over the course of a dinner party she throws with her husband Harry. She starts out filled with bliss, as though she had “swallowed” part of the afternoon – she plays with her baby and looks at “a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom” in the garden. In attendance are the Knights, as well as the implicitly gay Eddie and the fascinating Pearl Fulton. She thinks Harry is rude to her, and hers is the only perspective we have as readers. She thinks again of the pear tree, which “would be silver in the light of poor dear Eddie’s moon.” Bertha tries to locate her interest in Pearl, which is at the fringes of desire, but ultimately realizes that she shares with Pearl an attraction to Harry. She realizes they are having an affair when she walks into the hallway and sees her husband take Pearl in his arms. She “laid her moonbeam fingers on his cheeks and smiled her sleepy smile.” As she leaves, Pearl mutters, “Your lovely pear tree!” “Bertha simply ran over to the long windows… But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.”

“GARDEN PARTY,” 1922

The in medias res beginning of the story, “And after all the weather was ideal,” reminds me so much of Mrs. Dalloway. The similarities continue as we watch Laura and Jose Sheridan and their mother prepare for a garden party, which is nearly interrupted by a death (recall Clarissa!). The sensations of the house, where all the doors and windows feel open, and there are an abundance of fragrant cut lilies, also remind me of Mrs. Dalloway. When the Sheridans learn that a man from the cottages at the edge of the property has died, Laura wants to call off the party. Mrs. Sheridan considers this “extravagant.” She sends Laura to the cottages with leftovers afterwards. Laura is taken with the beauty of the young man, who seems to be peacefully sleeping. The story ends with her musing, “Isn’t life…” to which her brother says, “Isn’t it, darling?”

“AT THE BAY,” 1922

This story seems almost like the bits of The Waves that begin each section with a time of day and the sea. It is told in one day, like the structure of that novel (which imagines each stage of life as a time of day), and involves the same characters as “Prelude.” It begins with Stanley swimming in the sea, tracks Kezia, Isabel, and Lottie playing, Linda remembering, and Beryl fretting over growing old alone. It ends with a cloud floating across the moon, and then “All was still.” The way the story draws attention to the objective world is also like To the Lighthouse. 

 

Henry James: Stories

“THE JOLLY CORNER,” 1898

Almost an analog to The Ambassadors, in “The Jolly Corner,” Spencer Brydon is plagued by having frittered away his life abroad, rather than staying home and making a solid life and fortune. As he begins to visit the old house on “the jolly corner” where he grew up late at night, he imagines the ghost of his other self haunting the house. The ghost is in a luxe dressing gown and a pince nez and is missing two fingers (both signs of experience, vs. safe leisure?) But “the face was the face of a stranger.” Alice says “you came to yourself” when he wakes up in her lap. She tells him that she had gotten used to the other him, and even pitied him. They embrace as he says that for all the money he has, the ghost hasn’t got Alice, and she responds, “He isn’t you!” As in The Turn of the Screw, the ghost story here is less about the ghost than about reimagining the affective sensation of the ghost story with psychological realism. Whereas the Gothic, but especially the Victorian, novel often provides a realistic explanation for the ghost, we are imprisoned in the subjectivity of James’ characters.

From Wikipedia:

Spencer Brydon returns to New York City after more than thirty years abroad. He has agreed to have his old family house demolished in favor of a more lucrative apartment building. Before the wreckers begin, he starts to prowl the house at night. Brydon has begun to realize that he might have been an astute businessman if he hadn’t forsaken moneymaking for a more leisurely life. He discusses this possibility with Alice Staverton, his woman friend who has always lived in New York.

Meanwhile Brydon begins to believe that his alter ego—the ghost of the man he might have been—is haunting the “jolly corner”, his nickname for the old family house. After a harrowing night of pursuit in the house, Brydon finally confronts the ghost, who advances on him and overpowers him with “a rage of personality before which his own collapsed.” Brydon eventually awakens with his head pillowed on Alice Staverton’s lap. It is arguable whether or not Spencer had actually become unconscious or whether he had died and has awoken in an afterlife. She had come to the house because she sensed he was in danger. She tells him that she pities the ghost of his alter ego, who has suffered and lost two fingers from his right hand. But she also embraces and accepts Brydon as he is.

“BEAST IN THE JUNGLE,” 1903

The story, as typical of James, unfolds with the conceit that we are in the psychology of the character, so that we are often confused about who or what is the subject of discourse. We learn the names of characters only as he learns or remembers them, and there is a proliferation of deictic pronouns (but their necessary context remains unclear): “What determined the speech that startled him in the course of their encounter scarcely matters…” May’s foreboding line “watching’s always in itself an absorption” prefigures the tragedy of her loss of self. There is also the idea that it is the language he chooses to figure his fate that traps him: what if he had but chosen another metaphor? The metaphor is so precise, while the rest of the language is flooded with uncertainty. In the end, the pain he feels at her death “at least, belated and bitter, had something of the taste of life.”

“But the bitterness suddenly sickened him, and it was as if, horribly, he saw, in the truth, in the cruelty of his image, what had been appointed and done. He saw the Jungle of his life and saw the lurking Beast; then, while he looked, perceived it, as by a stir of the air, rise, huge and hideous, for the leap that was to settle him. His eyes darkened – it was close; and, instinctively turning, in his hallucination, to avoid it, he flung himself, face down, on the tomb.”

Oddly, this ending passage comes after he says the beast has leapt and already fallen. The irony of the ending is that while she is what he has missed, they would not have come together without his illusions. Perhaps he would even have been less obsessed by it had he not had May to feed it all this time. She ‘knows what it is’ before him because she achieves a consciousness of loss in dying.

From Wikipedia:

John Marcher, the protagonist, is reacquainted with May Bartram, a woman he knew ten years earlier, who remembers his odd secret: Marcher is seized with the belief that his life is to be defined by some catastrophic or spectacular event, lying in wait for him like a “beast in the jungle.” May decides to buy a house in London with the money she inherited from a great aunt, and to spend her days with Marcher, curiously awaiting what fate has in store for him. Marcher is a hopeless egoist, who believes that he is precluded from marrying so that he does not subject his wife to his “spectacular fate”.

He takes May to the theatre and invites her to an occasional dinner, but does not allow her to get close to him. As he sits idly by and allows the best years of his life to pass, he takes May down as well, until the denouement where he learns that the great misfortune of his life was to throw it away, and to ignore the love of a good woman, based upon his preposterous sense of foreboding.

James Joyce, “Dubliners”

1914

The 15 stories of Dubliners are often read as a naturalist experiment in Dublin, the city operating as a closed, competitive environment for a variety of characters. The diegetic time of the stories are normally around one day (seemingly looking ahead to the experiment of Ulysses), and the movement through the stories from childhood (1-3), adolescence (4-7), adulthood (8-11), and public life/death (12-15) has been likened to a developmental bildungsroman, albeit without a central character (seemingly looking ahead to Portrait of the Artist).

1) The Sisters – first person, a boy learns a priest was mad only after he dies.

2) An Encounter – first person, a boy and his friend go off on an adventure and seem to narrowly escape a pervert.

3) Araby – first person, a boy is enamored of a girl and tries to go to the fair to buy her a present. He arrives very late and finds he is paralyzed: “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” 35.

4) Eveline – switches to 3rd person, a girl considers running away with a sailor, but music outside her window reminds her of her promise to her mother to stay. At the docsk, “She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition” 41.

5) After the Race – the man gambling on a yacht.

6) Two Gallants – the story of trailing in the city, the prostitute.

7) The Boarding House – Mrs. Mooney tempts the tenants with Polly, but when Polly gets pregnant, she is shocked and forces the couple to marry, drawing a confession from the boy. It ends: “Come down, dear. Mr. Doran wants to speak to you. Then she remembered what she had been waiting for” 69.

8) A Little Cloud – Gallaher, Little Chandler, the pretentions of writing.

9) Counterparts – A sad drunk man beats his son after a bad day.

10) Clay – Maria and the holiday game.

11) A Painful Case – James Duffy meets a woman at the theater and they and their thoughts become “entangled” as they continue to meet. They break it off because she is married. Four years later, he sees an article about her death, euphemizing her suicide as “an accident.” It revolts him, but he mourns her and tries to go back to their old haunts. “He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent… He felt that he was alone” 117.

12) Ivy Day in the Committee Room – Men gather at the pub on Ivy Day and discuss Parnell’s death. A eulogy poem is read, which is declared “a very fine piece of writing,” but the story emphasizes the gap between the discourse of poetry and reality 135.

13) A Mother – Mrs Kearney is proud that her daughter Kathleen will be singing at a concert. Though few people show up, she insists on her daughter being paid: “They thought they had only a girl to deal with and that, therefore, they could ride roughshod over her. But she would show them their mistake. They wouldn’t have dared to have treated her like that if she had been a man” 148. She becomes enraged, “like an angry stone image” (Medusa) and she and Kathleen are thrown out.

14) Grace – Two men bring another disoriented man home.

15) The Dead – Kate and Julia Morkan are having a party. Gabriel, their nephew, gives a long oratory at the dinner on the waning of Irish hospitality in the new overeducated generation. He sees his wife listening wistfully to music at the top of the staircase and imagines her as an aesthetic object in a painting he has created, “as if she were a symbol of something” 210. When they arrive home, Gretta admits that the song (by chance, as in “Eveline”) reminded her of Michael Furey, her first love, who died for her. The knowledge of her secret life horrifies Gabriel. The story ends with him standing at the window, the snow “falling on every part” of Ireland, ” falling softly… softly falling… falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” 223. The alliteration and chiasmus here suggest a kind of unity, infinity, and symmetry in that accompany this psychic realization, as well as an opening out into the wider world, all of which seems more like modernism than naturalism.

Flannery O’Connor: Stories

1953

Against the Romantic promise of the West, O’Connor’s stories paint a South that is always already lost, almost rotting in its baroque decline. Here, cliches turn on characters, rather than enabling nostalgia, as the titles of the stories show. The characters try to maintain metaphor in a literal landscape

“A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”

A family is driving to Florida. The grandmother takes them on a back road to see an old house, but realizes that it is in another state. She says nothing. They get in an accident. She recognizes the car that pulls up to them as containing the Misfit, a criminal on the run. She tells him she recognizes him. They take first the man and boy, then the mother and girl, off to the woods to be shot. The distraught grandmother cries for “Bailey Boy”; we never once know his wife’s name since the focalization is largely through the grandmother as “the children’s mother.” “You’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” she says in a final act of grace, reaching out to the Misfit. “The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.”

Both the grandmother and the Misfit demonstrate a false consciousness seeking order. Her fear is the loss of the past, which he embodies.”She would of been a good woman… if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” says the Misfit. The tension here between cinematic “shooting,” the endless grace of a life under threat, and the misogynistic tone of a silently subjugated woman without agency are copresent in this line.

“THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN”

An old woman convinces her tenant Mr. Shiftlet to marry her disabled daughter Lucynell, who she passes off as 16, though she is nearly 30. “Because of her innocence it was impossible to guess.” Like Faulkner’s Benjy, Lucynell literalizes the muteness of Philomel. We are invited to consider that Mr. Shiftlet rapes Lucynell before the wedding – as he fixes the car, “terrible noises issued from the shed and the old woman rushed out of the house, thinking Lucynell was somewhere having a fit. Lucynell was sitting on a chicken crate, stamping her feet and screaming… but her fuss was drowned out by the car.” He stops at a diner with her on his honeymoon night, where Lucynell falls asleep at the table. He ditches her there, telling the waiter she’s a hitchhiker. On the road, he sees a sign that reads, “Drive carefully. The life you save may be your own.” He picks up a boy who is rude and jumps out of the moving car. “Oh Lord!… Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!” wishes Mr. Shiftlet. At that moment, it begins to rain heavily.

1965

“EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE”

An obnoxious old woman and her theoretical son Julian, who is taking her to the YMCA, disagree about matters of race. While the old woman is a racist who thinks black children are cute, her son overcompensates by trying to befriend every black person on the bus by staring at them. In a twist of irony, a black mother is wearing the same hat his mother is so proud to have bought. “He felt completely detached from her. At that moment he could with pleasure have slapped her as he would have slapped a particularly obnoxious child in his charge.” The old woman tries to give a little colored child a penny after getting off the bus with her son. The child’s mother hits the white woman across the face with her purse. “‘Don’t think that was just an uppity Negro woman,’ he said. ‘That was the whole colored race which will no longer take your condescending pennies. That was your black double. She can wear the same hat as you… it looked better on her than it did on you… the old world is gone.'” At the last moment he feels bad and runs after her: “The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”

Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

1981

The stories of Raymond Carver (1938-1988) kind of make you wonder if Silvan Tomkins was thinking about him when he wrote about shame as the most vital and pronounced affect (along with its counterparts humiliation, contempt, and disgust). Shame is a sort of engine driving Carver’s work, which has also been called “dirty realism” (like that of Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, and Anne Beattie). He pursues the problems of ordinary working-class and middle-class Americans, as well as social outcasts and misfits (he’d be interesting to compare with Flannery O’Connor in this sense).  I’ll just be writing on the eponymous story of the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, of which there are two versions – one more prolix, the other significantly cut down (by editor Gordon Lish) to something more muscular and streamlined (in other words, Carver:Lish :: Eliot:Pound).

It seems like Carver’s first version of the story, “Beginners” is concerned with the consciousness of the “real” vs. the “unreal,” in terms of both affection and phenomenological experience (“You’ve seen it in the movies even if you haven’t seen the real thing,” Herb says of the bloody accident). The flattening edits remove this consciousness from the prose, taking away, in turn, the characters’ consciousness of real and mediated experience – at least insofar as it is available for the reader to decipher. The depths are obscured, so that the edited story almost invites us to project (we can say this of Hemingway, Nabokov, Ellis, and a number of other “flat” writers as well). The main character loses, too, his cathartic moment of crying at the window, which is also the loss, to the second story, of the American pastoral. The tension between Terri and Herb is stronger than the original Laura and Nick.

Carver even talked about Lish’s edits in cardiologist’s terms – as a “surgery” Lish performed on his work, and worried that “my heart can’t take it.” Lish, for his part, seems to have wielded his higher class and more “literary” background over Carver and promised him that his edits would protect the writer from exposing too much, or appearing to lack craft. It is debatable which version is better; the original is more psychically complex, while the edited one has a sharper finish.

“BEGINNERS”

21 pages in length, the story begins in medias res in an odd tone that is both familiar and unspecific: “My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin” 927. Herb and Terri are the friends, Nick and Laura are the narrator and his wife. Terri claims her ex loved her so much he tried to kill her and ended up killing himself. Herb insists, “you know that’s not love,” and later “if you call that love, you can have it.” Herb’s example of true love, which he delivers as he gets drunker and tells Terri “Now just shut up for a minute. Okay?” is of an old couple badly injured in a car accident, which he invites the others to imagine based on the movies they’ve seen. They looked like “phony actors,” but this was “the real thing,” a parallel to the anxiety of performance surrounding love in the story as well 938. The old man says the last thought before the accident was the sadness of never seeing Anna again, and he is missing her in his recovery as well: “he pined for her. I nver knew what that word meant before” 940. As the couple are reunited, both Laura and Terri beg that the story end happily. They are both fine, Herb confirms as “The light seemed to be draining out of the room” 943. Herb’s desire to “carry off” Laura and his interest in vassals and knights demonstrates his confusion between chivalry and control, or perhaps the very fine line by which they are separated. Herb leaves to call his kids and Terri lets on that she’s worried about him because he’s suicidal. This reminds her of Carl, and she reveals that was once secretly pregnant with Carl’s baby, and that Herb himself performed the abortion. As Laura begins to comfort Terri, Nick pulls away to look out at the window, and we get an almost cinematic slow zoom outward: “I looked out… I looked past… I looked past… gate open… beyond… field of wild grass… another field… interstate connecting Albuquerque.” He sees the changed light and the blue sky like “the blue you see in tropical postcards.” His heart rate increases, then slows at Laura’s “penetrating” gaze when he turns around, which says to him “Don’t worry, we’ll get past this… That’s the way I chose to interpret the look anyway”. He looks back out, wishing there were horses to fix on: “I had to keep still a while longer, keep my eyes out there, outside the house as long as there was something left to see.”

“WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE”

Cut down to just 12 pages, the edit of Carver’s original story switches to Mel (not Herb) McGinnis, and Terri’s ex is now Ed (not Carl). It begins: “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin” 310. It’s interesting that the story is subtler about both women’s weight, but somehow Terri is vulnerable to abuse at least partly because she is “bone-thin,” it seems. Nick treats the question of whether he loves Laura much more plainly and flatly here, which actually makes it seem faker, paradoxically. When he begins the story of the old couple, Mel whispers, “Just shut up for once in your life,” which again seems harsher than the original. The story is shorter, and Mel is rougher with it:
He said that was what was making him feel so bad. Can you imagine? … the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife” 320. Mel’s thoughts about killing his wife here are also more equated to the violence of Ed – a stronger endorsement of the suspicion that he beats Terri. Mel doesn’t call his kids and the narrator’s heartbeat gets fast, but without resolution: “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” This ending almost makes it feel like a stage play – we look at all of them as the lights dim, no resolution.

Jean Toomer, “Cane”

1923

A series of short narratives with poetic interludes, Cane is one of the earliest texts of the Harlem Renaissance. It consists of the following pieces (narratives are italicized, poems are not):

Karintha – a young black woman desired by older men who wish “to ripen a growing thing too soon.”
Reapers
November Cotton Flower
Becky – an ostracized white woman with two black sons who lives in a small stone house with the railway.
Face
Cotton Song
Carma – a strong woman whose husband becomes involved in shady business.
Song of the Son
Georgia Dusk
Fern – A Northern black man attempts to woo a southern black woman, with strange results.
Nullo
Evening Song
Esther – a young woman who works in a drug store ages and pines for the wandering preacher Barlo, eventually seeking him out, only to be jeered at when he smiles hideously at her and she runs away.
Conversion
Portrait in Georgia
Blood-Burning Moon – black man Tom Burwell and white man Bob Stone each pursue the young Louisa, resulting in a violent encounter and a tragic climax.

(section 2: half moon mark)

Seventh Street – Brief vignette about a street which is “a bastard of Prohibition and the War.
Rhobert – about a solitary man
Avey – A young college student pursues a lazy girl named Avey, but cannot figure out why.
Beehive
Storm Ending
Theater – A dancer named Dorris seeks the approval and adoration of a patron named John.
Her Lips are Copper Wire
Calling Jesus
Box Seat – Dan Moore lusts after a reluctant Muriel, and follows her to a dwarf fight, where he starts a scene.
Prayer
Harvest Song – “I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown. All my oats are cradled… I fear knowledge of my hunger… My pain is sweet. Sweeter than the oats or wheat or corn. It will not bring me knowledge of my hunger.”
Bona & Paul – A story of indifferent love.

(section 3: full moon mark)

Kabnis – Essentially a short play about a Northern black schoolteacher’s experiences in the south, returning to his roots – bizarre ending of preacher’s violence?

Langston Hughes wrote in “The Negro & the Racial Mountain” that Cane challenged what both blacks & whites wanted to read about black life: it fit neither the white model of the “Old Negro” nor the white craving for Harlem scandal, nor did it please blacks who wanted black life portrayed as “respectable.”

It’s worth considering how many of the vignettes center around the lives of women. Beginning with Karintha’s bold, sexualized narrative of childhood and ending with the woman on her knees before the priest in “Kabnis” seems to suggest some kind of dialogue with Joyce – the world of tight-knit communities, but revised so that childhood is neither purely male nor innocent, nor is it urban, like Dublin.

The title of the work seems to suggest both the sweetness of sugarcane as well as the history of slave and sharecropping labor associated with plantations, not to mention the transformation of the sugarcane into an instrument of violence. All the stories focus on the growth, harvesting, death, and labor around the fields and small towns of Georgia. The narratives are tangentially related, but mainly by associated ideas and tones, not actual characters or plots.

It would be interesting to teach this either with Stein’s Three Lives and/or Tender Buttons for discussing narrative voice, community, and thematic interrelation among narratives. One could also teach this with Dubliners and/or Winesburg, Ohio for the same reasons, addressing differences between Irish, American, and Black modernisms. You could also put it in dialogue with some other poems of the Harlem Renaissance and/or Banjo to discuss jazz/ variations on a theme.