American novelist and short-story writer, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford.
Bad Characters, first published in the New Yorker Magazine, December 4th 1954
Sadly I can’t find a copy of it free to read online.
This is the last of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s how their introduction sums up this story: “The amount of focus on people other than the narrator varies in these stories, but always there is some […] “Bad Characters” is about the narrator’s friend as much as about herself, so closely are we asked to associate them.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
Emily Vanderpool has very few friends – Muff the cat shows her the most affection. Bullied and teased, she has a strange idiosyncrasy, whereby she gets a kind of panic attack, and needs to be on her own. Life is drab until she meets Lottie Jump. Lottie is different from the other kids; she has charisma, she has attitude, and she seems happy to share her time with Emily. Emily’s first experience with her was seeing her steal a chocolate cake; this is shocking to Emily, who had been brought up to know the difference between right and wrong. But it’s also strangely exciting: “I was deeply impressed by this bold, sassy girl from Oklahoma and greatly admired the poise with which she aired her prejudices.”
Lottie is prepared to be friends with Emily, on the understanding that she is prepared to do her fair share of stealing. The demand is a hammer blow to Emily’s conscience: “I was thrilled to death and shocked to pieces […] I was torn between agitation […] and excitement over the daring invitation to misconduct myself in so perilous a way.” She also turns a blind eye to the fact that Lottie has stolen Emily’s mother’s perfume flask from her drawer and doesn’t tell her the truth when she assumes she has mislaid it somewhere.
On Saturday, the two girls go into town and spend time in Woolworths. Lottie suggests Emily undertakes some distraction techniques with the shop staff, whilst she shoplifts a number of items and secretes them under her enormous hat. All goes well at first, until Emily has one of her panic attack moments whilst she is engaging with a sales clerk. She makes a cruel remark to Lottie, who at that moment is palming a string of pearls under her hat. The assistant sees it; cries out “Floorwalker! Mr Bellamy! I’ve caught a thief!” And with that, the game is up. But it backfires on Emily, as the experienced Lottie simply plays deaf and dumb and passes the blame back on to Emily, who is unprepared to defend herself. It’s a hard lesson for Emily – and she never sees Lottie again.
It’s a beautifully written little story; the characterisations of Lottie and Emily are very well drawn and you really feel you know them well. There’s some delightful use of language; Emily’s father is friends with the local Judge, and she describes his appearance as “a giant in intimidating haberdashery”. It also builds pace nicely, as you get closer and closer to the Saturday “shopping” day; the anticipation of what’s about to happen gets quite exciting.
Of course, it’s a thoroughly moral story, reflecting Emily’s falling for the glamour of the villain, with the allure of the forbidden activity. It’s inevitable that the wrongdoer will get off scot-free, and the more innocent of the two will take all the blame. One of the longer stories in this volume, the reader can comfortably lose themselves in its gradual progress, and appreciate the characterisations and developments. A thoroughly entertaining read.
The next story in the anthology is the first of four classified by Moffett and McElheny as memoir, or observer narration, the well-known The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe.