The Points of View Challenge – Patricia, Edith and Arnold – Dylan Thomas

Dylan ThomasDylan Marlais Thomas (1914 – 1953)

Welsh poet and writer of short stories and screenplays.

Patricia, Edith and Arnold, first published in the collection Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog in 1940.

Available to read online here.

This is the first of eight stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Biography, or Anonymous Narration – Single Character Point of View. From their introduction: “The authors of the next stories do not refer to themselves or tell us how they know what they know. But, of course, there is no narrative without a narrator. True, he does not identify himself, but the materials, the way they are put together, and the choice of words are all his.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

Patricia, Edith and Arnold


Portrait of the Artist as a Young DogOur narrator is fully preoccupied with the playing and games of a young boy, backing his invisible engine into the coal hole, saluting a fireman, being King of the Castle; whereas the boy is occupied with the secret conversations between Patricia, who is looking after him, and Edith, the maid who lives next door. They’re both anxiously planning about how to meet Arnold. Arnold is a young man who has been stringing them both along, seeing Edith on Fridays and Patricia on Wednesdays, writing them both love letters without having any idea that they knew of each other’s existence.

They take the boy to the park – it’s snowing and he’s excited to make a snowman. He’s also quietly curious about meeting Arnold. And while the two women confront the man about his duplicity, the boy runs around teasing, playing and calling out names. Much to Edith’s remorse, Patricia forces Arnold to confirm that it’s she whom he really likes. But when the boy later realises he has left his cap behind, he quietly discovers Arnold reading Edith’s letters, turning them over in his hands; he doesn’t see the boy, and the boy doesn’t tell Patricia what he saw.

This is a subtle, introverted little tale, where the substance of what actually goes on is related to the reader at a tangent to the boy’s games. He doesn’t fully appreciate the truth behind the meeting between Arnold and the two women, and he doesn’t understand why it appears to have such a profound effect on them. It’s just one of those little moments in childhood when you get swept up in an adult activity that you know is important and significant, without having the experience or insight to grasp it fully.

Delicately written and occasionally deliberately obscure, it’s a curious, satisfying read about a domestic, romantic crisis seen through the opaque understanding of the boy. Perhaps it’s even more curious that Dylan chose to not to have the boy narrate the story himself; the presence of the unnamed narrator adds a further dimension of distancing from the nub of the action.

The next story in the anthology is the second to be classified by Moffett and McElheny as Biography, or Anonymous Narration – Single Character Point of View, Horses – One Dash by Stephen Crane.

The Points of View Challenge – Johnny Bear – John Steinbeck

John SteinbeckJohn Ernst Steinbeck (1902 – 1968)

American novelist, and writer of short stories, non-fiction and film screenplays.

Johnny Bear, first published in the collection The Long Valley in 1938.

Available to read online here – and you can hear John Steinbeck reading it here.

This is the fourth and last story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Memoir, or Observer Narration. From their introduction: “Memoir, or observer narration, is the hinge between autobiography and biography, first-person and third-person narration. In it we can see clearly the channels of information and the personal ties which disappear from the text when the narrator no longer identifies himself.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

Johnny Bear


The Long ValleyOur unnamed narrator has arrived in the Californian village of Loma to work on constructing a ditch through a swamp, reclaiming the land for planting crops. He’s not local, so rents a room at Mrs Ratz’ house, and the only social activity there is in the evenings is to go drinking whisky at the Buffalo Bar, run by a lugubrious but charismatic man known as Fat Carl. The narrator has met a local girl, Mae Romero, but it’s just at the friendship stage. He has also befriended Alex Hartnell, who owns one of the local farms. One night in the bar, Johnny Bear walks in. He is a big, clumsy, unkempt man; the locals think of him as a half-wit. But he has a skill; he can remember and recite overheard conversations with pinpoint accuracy of both the words and voice – he has a remarkable ability to imitate. His trick is to come into the bar and ask someone to buy him a whisky, and the more he drinks, the more he recites these conversations. On their first meeting, he recites the conversation our narrator had previously had with Mae, much to the former’s embarrassment and the amusement of his friend Alex.

Obviously, Johnny Bear deliberately spies on people to hear what they are saying. On another occasion he relays a conversation between Miss Emalin and Miss Amy, the Hawkins sisters, known as the local aristocracy. Alex is upset at this; these sisters represent everything that’s good about Loma and feels they should be treated with respect. As their conversations become more wildly known, it becomes apparent that Amy’s mental health is deteriorating badly. One day the news permeates through that she has taken her own life. Johnny Bear comes into the bar and starts to reveal the final conversations she had with both Emalin and the doctor; and in attempt to protect the memory of Amy from scandal, Alex lands Johnny Bear a punch that stops him in his tracks, which escalates to a full brawl also involving Fat Carl and the narrator. In the end, we discover the vital fact that Johnny Bear was about to reveal, but Alex thinks the other people in the bar won’t have heard it.

It’s an engrossing read, with well-developed characters and a richly imagined environment so that the whole story rings true. Alex is motivated by his wish to preserve the dignity and reputation of two respectable women, whose integrity contributes so much to the good standing of the community. If it means having to descend to physical violence against an oaf who knows no better, then sobeit. In addition, it offends Alex’s values because Emalin and Amy were always kind and generous towards Johnny Bear, giving him food and clothes. But Johnny Bear doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to distinguish between repeatable conversations and unrepeatable ones. If they result in him being bought a whisky, then he’ll do it.

Alex’s actions also highlight a social unbalance, however, in that it’s unacceptable to treat these women in the way that Johnny Bear does, but having him mimicking the narrator’s private conversation, who is working class, a stranger, and without a good name to uphold, is fair game. Johnny Bear is a typical Steinbeck creation, very much in the mould of Lennie from Of Mice and Men; his gift is to speak the truth indiscriminately, whether everyone else wants to hear it or not.

I learned a new word – fumadiddle! Fat Carl is said to be not a fan of them. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s a variant of flumadiddle, a mid-19th century name for a dish made from stale bread, pork fat, molasses, and spices, baked in the oven. This came to mean nonsense, humbug, something trivial or ridiculous.

The next story in the anthology is the first of eight classified by Moffett and McElheny as biography, or anonymous narration – single character point of view, Patricia Edith and Arnold by Dylan Thomas.

The Points of View Challenge – The Tryst – Ivan Turgenev

Ivan TurgenevIvan Sergeyevich Turgenev (1818 – 1883)

Russian novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright and translator.

The Tryst, first published in Contemporary Magazine (Совреме́нник) in 1850, then in the collection Hunter’s Notes (Записки охотника) in 1852.

Available to read online here – please note, this is a different translation from that published in the Points of View volume.

This is the third of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Memoir, or Observer Narration. From their introduction: “The stories selected for this group demonstrate some of the different relationships a narrator may have to events and main characters; these relationships determine how he gains information. He may be a confidant of the protagonists; he may be merely an eye-witness to their actions; he may be a member of some group or community in which they’re generally known, in which case he behaves like the chorus in Greek drama.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!


The Tryst


Hunter's SketchesOur unnamed narrator finds himself resting in a birch grove in autumn. All around him are the beautiful, sensuous sights and sounds of nature at its most perfect; verdant, lush, almost over-ripe in its sheer stunning presence. He drifts off to sleep and wakes up later and spies a peasant girl sitting in this lavish environment – but she is crying, and her delicate white skin stands out against the green grove. The narrator remains hidden, but eventually, another figure enters the scene – an arrogant, posturing young man, whose “face, rosy, fresh, brazen, belonged to that category of faces which, insofar as I have been able to observe, almost always move men to indignation and, regrettably, are very often found pleasing by women.”

The girl, Akulina, is relieved to see the boy, Victor Alexandrych, but he brusquely tells her he will be leaving tomorrow with his master. Stunned into sadness, Akulina begs him to stay but he callously shows no interest in her feelings and tells her to stop talking nonsense. She gives him a garland of cornflowers, but he shows no interest in them. Desperate to hear a kind word from him, he disdains every opportunity to soothe her sorrow. He patronises her for her lack of education, says she cannot possibly imagine what life is like in glamorous Petersburg, says it’s impossible for them to marry and eventually shrugs his shoulders and walks off in silence, leaving the cornflowers behind. A chill comes over the birch grove; the leaves now seem dry and lifeless, and nature’s colours have turned grey. The narrator starts to approach Akulina but she runs off. His final comment on the incident: “I came home; but for a long time the image of poor Akulina would not leave my mind, and her cornflowers, withered long since, are still treasured by me…”

The incident that Turgenev describes is simple enough. A meeting between two young people, she is clearly in love, and he is only in love with himself. He never has any intention of behaving honourably to the girl and she is just left to rue her unhappy affections. But we see it all through the eyes of the narrator, and he is biased from the start – finding Akulina fetching and pure, and “very far from bad-looking”. Victor Alexandrych, on the other hand, “did not create a pleasing impression on me. He was, judging by all the signs, the spoiled valet of some young, rich seigneur.” And whilst there’s no doubt that the boy mistreats the girl in this tryst, you must wonder if the narrator has an ulterior motive in framing the story in the way he does.

Turgenev gives us a superb contrast between the description of nature at its most fecund before the meeting, and then dry and lifeless afterwards – which clearly symbolises the optimism and positivity about their relationship before the meeting, and how it is dead and buried after she has been so badly let down. I also like how he suggests that the narrator has been so affected by what he saw that even today, some time after the event, he still treasures the memory of Akulina. “Treasure” is a strong word!

Brief, thoughtful, and packed with gorgeous descriptions, this is a juicy nugget of the short story genre, that suggests just as much (if not more) than it actually says. Not exactly enjoyable, but certainly memorable and I really admire Turgenev’s construction and use of language.

The next story in the anthology is the fourth and final classified by Moffett and McElheny as memoir, or observer narration, Johnny Bear by John Steinbeck.

The Points of View Challenge – Mademoiselle Pearl – Guy de Maupassant

Guy de MaupassantHenri René Albert Guy de Maupassant (1850 – 1893)

French writer, best known for his short stories.

Mademoiselle Pearl, first published in Le Figaro literary supplement, 16th January 1886, then in the collection La Petite Roque.

Available to read online here – please note, this is a different translation from that published in the Points of View volume.

This is the second of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Memoir, or Observer Narration. From their introduction: “Three of the stories that follow bear the name of the third person, not the narrator of the story. Although all four feature someone other than the narrator, the autobiographical element is still necessarily strong. In fact, the essence of these stories may be in the resonance between the narrator and his subject: something happens in the protagonist that resounds in the narrator.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!


Mademoiselle Pearl


Mademoiselle PerleOur narrator, Gaston, recollects a time when he visited his old friends the Chantal family to celebrate Epiphany. Chantal had been a friend of Gaston’s father, and he has known the family for decades; Chantal, his wife Christine, and their two daughters Louise and Pauline. Making up the household is Mademoiselle Pearl, who acts as a housekeeper, but is considered a close member of the family. A traditional game takes place at Epiphany, where someone at the table will discover a lucky bean in the Twelfth Night Cake. This year it is Gaston who finds the bean. Whoever finds the bean is King for the night and must choose his Queen. Gaston considers the awkwardness of choosing between any of the female members of the Chantal family and so chooses Mlle Pearl – who is hugely embarrassed at the honour.

Gaston realises in an instant just how attractive Mlle Pearl really is, even though she dresses like an old maid. After dinner, over cigars and billiards, Gaston asks Chantal how Mlle Pearl fits in to the family – is she a relative? Surprised that Gaston doesn’t know the background, he tells him the story of how one snowy night a six-week old child was discovered left outside their house – clearly loved and cared for, and with a large sum of money in the baby carriage for anyone who took care of her. The Chantals brought her into the family and raised her as their own. But Mme Chantal was keen to delineate between her own children and a foundling, so Pearl became the housekeeper – and was grateful to be given that role.

Gaston can tell from Chantal’s tone that it was always Pearl whom he loved, and not Charlotte. He confronts him with that recognition and Chantal sobs emotional tears at the thought of the love he was never able to have. Later, Gaston also confronts Pearl to discover if she felt the same way; her actions tell him that she did: “She slipped from her chair to the floor and sank slowly, softly, across it, like a falling scarf.”

Reflecting on his actions, Gaston concludes that he did the right thing. “I walked away with great strides, sick at heart and my mind full of remorse and regret. And at the same time I was almost happy; it seemed to me that I had done a praiseworthy action.”

This is a gentle story, packed with a formal elegance, but which delivers a kick and a twist right at the end. Written with gorgeous delicacy but also unexpectedly funny at times, Maupassant has a lovely feel for the pace of the writing, allowing himself time to go into considerable detail – not fully necessary for our understanding of the story – just because he wants to paint his splendid verbal pictures. An example of this is the long narration of how the baby was found outside the house, which could have been explained in an instant rather than taking up a good quarter of the entire short story.

There are some beautiful and thought-provoking observations; I love how he attributes shapes to thoughts – “Why do I always think that Mme Chantal’s thoughts are square? […] There are other people whose thoughts always seem to me round and rolling like circles […] Other persons have pointed thoughts… But this is somewhat irrelevant.” Maupassant has a very refined way of expressing some of the seedier side of life; in describing the “new quarter” of Paris, on the other side of the Seine, he describes “quarters inhabited by a strange noisy people, with the shakiest notions of honesty, who spent their days in dissipation, their nights feasting, and threw money out of the windows”.

It’s also entertaining to see how Gaston subtly disapproves of the Chantals’ cossetted lifestyle: “the father himself is a charming man, very cultured, very frank, very friendly, but desirous of nothing so much as repose, quiet and tranquillity, and mainly instrumental in mummifying his family into mere symbols of his will, living and having their being in a stagnant peacefulness.” His is a gloved hand, that conceals plenty of barbs. Perhaps it is no surprise that he confronts Chantal and Pearl with such open criticism.

The reader may well ask themselves if Gaston’s actions are justified. Yes, he has revealed to Chantal and Pearl their own truths; on the downside he has shattered the peace of their existence, which no doubt will have repercussions throughout the entire family. Personally I find Gaston’s self-justification rather pig-headed and pompous; he needs to exonerate himself so asks us to agree with him. But do we? All in all, a superb little tale.

The next story in the anthology is the third of four classified by Moffett and McElheny as memoir, or observer narration, The Tryst by Ivan Turgenev.

The Points of View Challenge – The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan PoeEdgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849)

American writer, poet, editor, and literary critic, best known for his poetry and short stories.

The Fall of the House of Usher, first published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1839

Available to read online here

This is the first of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Memoir, or Observer Narration. Here’s how their introduction starts: “The following technique imitates first-hand reporting. The authors of these stories have neither told them in the third person nor had the main character tell them; instead they have used an observer or subordinate character as narrator. Observing is itself sometimes a profound experience, and to want to tell someone else’s story is to be involved in it.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!


The Fall of the House of Usher


Fall of the House of UsherOur unnamed narrator is heading for The House of Usher – home to his boyhood friend Roderick Usher, who has written to him, asking him to visit. Roderick is obviously suffering from physical and mental torment and wants his old friend to give him some companionship and improve his mood. But as the narrator approaches the house, it appears as a picture of gloom and darkness in the distance. His suspicions are confirmed as he is shown through dingy corridors to Roderick’s room.

Our narrator is shocked at how much Roderick has changed – he has become cadaverous and anxious, and overwhelmed by a sense of fear. But he finds solace in his pictures and his music, which the narrator encourages and helps. He briefly meets Roderick’s sister Madeline, his only other companion in the house. Madeline suffers from catalepsy and falls into trances, and is extremely ill.

Some time later, Roderick informs the narrator that Madeline has died, and together the two men carry her body into the House’s family tomb. Our narrator notices that Madeline still has a fresh colour to her skin, but that is a common feature after death. One night there is a fearful storm which wakes both men; Roderick is filled with terror, and the narrator tries to placate him by diverting his attention by reading to him from his much loved books. At the moment in the tale where the narrative describes the slaying of a dragon, who emits hideous death cries, similar noises are heard inside the house.

Usher confesses that he has buried Madeline whilst she was still alive. She has broken free from the tomb and falls through the bedroom door with a final agonised death cry, which in turn causes mortal terror for Roderick. The story ends with the narrator fleeing for his life, as he looks back on the House which crumbles under the force of the storm. The House of Usher has irredeemably fallen.

This story has a well-deserved reputation for being a master example of a Gothic horror tale. Many analyses have been written, pointing out the symbolism of the House as a decaying body – the fissure in the structure of the building is like a human scar, and the windows are likened to eyes. Themes of mental and physical illness permeate the story, and its apocalyptic ending is Biblical in proportion. The narrator, in his anonymity, remains an outsider in the tale, which fortunately allows him to escape uninjured, although whether he will ever get over the mental turmoil caused by his experience is debatable.

Poe’s writing is exceptionally formal, and with incredible attention to detail. Whilst there is very little in the way of genuine action in this story, he concentrates on the sense of fear generated by everything the narrator sees and hears. So, despite the lack of action, the reader’s attention is still gripped throughout – more than 180 years since it was first published. At the end, you realise there are a number of questions that remain unanswered, including the nature of Roderick’s illness, and the nature of Roderick and Madeline’s relationship. Has Madeline really been alive in the tomb all this time, or is this a visitation by her ghostly spirit to take revenge on Roderick?

The next story in the anthology is the second of four classified by Moffett and McElheny as memoir, or observer narration, the well-known Mademoiselle Pearl by Guy de Maupassant.

The Points of View Challenge – Bad Characters – Jean Stafford

Jean StaffordJean Stafford (1915 – 1979)

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!


Bad Characters


Bad CharactersEmily 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.

The Points of View Challenge – The Use of Force – William Carlos Williams

William Carlos WilliamsWilliam Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963)

American poet (The Red Wheelbarrow), writer, and physician.

The Use of Force, first published in the collection Life Along the Passaic River, in 1938

Available to read online here

This is the third 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 continues: “Two of the stories are about the narrator’s childhood, told many years later. The other two are about adult experiences. One of them might have happened the day before it is told, but after strong feelings have cooled, the narrator’s maturity enables him to talk about them with an outsider’s detachment.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!


The Use of Force


Life Along the Passaic RiverDoctor has called on the Olson family because daughter Mathilda is very sick. Although she seems “strong as a heifer”, she’s had a fever for three days. There have been cases of diphtheria at the local school so it’s important she’s checked out. Doctor asks if she has a sore throat. Apparently not, say the parents, but Doctor decides he should inspect her throat to make sure.

But Mathilda has other ideas. She refuses to engage with Doctor in any way, won’t open her mouth, and when he tries to get near, she flings her arm out and nearly breaks his glasses. At first Doctor rather admires her tenacity and independence, especially in the face of her parents’ embarrassment and annoyance at her behaviour. But as she grows more and more unreasonable, he gets progressively angrier, and, despite his better judgment decides that the use of force will be the only way he can check her throat.

Even though she’s bleeding, and shrieking in agony, Doctor continues to pin her down and “overpowered the child’s neck and jaws. I forced the heavy silver spoon back of her teeth and down her throat till she gagged.” Surprise, surprise, he discovers she’s been hiding the fact that her tonsils are covered with a membrane that tells him that she’s had a sore throat for three days. Her final fury at being found out is worse than the pain of the throat.

William Carlos Williams was a physician all his life and so presumably this incident is based on a real event, or at least suggested by one. In the grand scheme of things this is a very minor incident, but it reveals to Doctor just how personally he became involved with the case – that it became war between him and his patient, and that he allowed his reactions to get out of control. “I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it.”

As for Mathilda, she didn’t take defeat lying down. The last lines of the story are: “ Now truly she was furious. She had been on the defensive before but now she attacked. Tried to get off her father’s lap and fly at me while tears of defeat blinded her eyes.”

What started off as a simple home visit to a patient escalated to battle of wits and strength. A minor incident perhaps, but Doctor learned a lot about himself as a result. Maybe next time he would react differently? Was the use of force justified in this case? Could it potentially have saved the girl’s life? Were the parents acting in her best interests? There are a number of questions you can ask yourself – and no obvious answers.

The next story in the anthology is the fourth and final of the detached autobiography stories, Bad Characters by Jean Stafford, of whom I have never heard!

The Points of View Challenge – Warm River – Erskine Caldwell

Erskine CaldwellErskine Caldwell (1903 – 1987)

American novelist (Tobacco Road, God’s Little Acre) and short story writer.

Warm River, first published in the collection We are the Living, in 1933

Available to read online here

This is the second of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s the part of their introduction that specifically refers to this story: “The other story, which is about a change in emotional perspective, is told from the newly learned point of view. By one means or another, but ultimately always by the passage of time, the speaker has arrived at the understanding of his experience he must have in order to discuss it with a neutral, watchful audience.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!


Warm River


We Are The LivingOur narrator, Richard, crosses a rickety bridge over a warm river to reach the house of Gretchen, her father and her two sisters. At this point we don’t know why he’s visiting them. They’re obviously both very excited to be seeing each other, and his visit was clearly expected. Richard and Gretchen spend a long time looking at each other, not finding the right words to say. Later, Richard asks her father why it is that he has settled in this romantic location in the mountains. He says he and his late wife were born there, and lived there for twenty years, and by living there he still feels close to her and can still carry on loving her, even though she’s no longer there.

Stunned by this simple revelation of true love, Richard finds himself questioning his own reason for being there. Does he love Gretchen? He admits to himself that he can’t really say that he does, although he understands that she loves him ardently. She tries to get him to say he loves her, at least just a little – but he cannot.

They sleep separately, Gretchen promising to wake Richard in good time to get his morning train. But Richard cannot sleep. He smokes and frets. Eventually he opens his bedroom door and looks towards hers, only to find that she too is not asleep, but kneeling on her rug, crying. He is struck by how beautiful she is. Come morning, she is rushing around to get his breakfast before he leaves; but he has a fresh understanding of his emotions. “Gretchen […] don’t hurry to get me off – I’m not going back this morning – I don’t know what was the matter with me last night – I know now that I love you”. The story ends with his asking her to show him the way down to the river; “I have got to go down there right away and feel the water with my hands.”

This is a deceptively soft, slight, gentle tale which reveals much more on a second reading. At first it appears to be the story of a rather naïve and tentative chap who’s been invited in by a prospective girlfriend to meet the family, uncertain of his emotions towards the young lady, but which grow stronger and more certain as he sees more of her. However, you can also read it as though he knows exactly what he wants from that naughty night away – in fact both of them do, and it’s only when Richard can spend his time alone no more that he gets up, “stiff and erect” (Caldwell’s words, not mine) and voyeuristically spies on Gretchen. And it’s only then that he realises she’s worth more than just a one night stand.

The sensuality of everything to do with the warm river, that Richard initially fears to cross but later desperately wants to wash over his hands, reeks of sexual symbolism. Caldwell’s writing feels a little heavy-handed to me, with its constant references to the countryside, the mountains, the river, deliberately daubing the romanticism onto the canvass. I think it’s a clever tale, but I didn’t like it that much. It’s a well-regarded short story but I don’t think it would attract me to reading more of his works.

The next story in the anthology is the third of the detached autobiography stories, The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams, an author whom I think of more as a poet than a short story writer. I will be interested to see what his short story skills are like!

The Points of View Challenge – First Confession – Frank O’Connor

Frank O'ConnorFrank O’Connor (1903 – 1966)

Irish Republican Army soldier, teacher, theatre director, librarian writer of over 150 short stories (Guests of the Nation, The Majesty of Law, My Oedipus Complex).

First Confession, first published in the collection Traveller’s Samples, in 1951

Available to read online here

This is the first 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 starts: “Each speaker in the next stories tells about what happened to him in the past. Now he is in a frame of mind that has changed greatly since the time he underwent the experience he describes, a frame of mind that may even be a result of what he has learned from the experience.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!


First Confession


Traveller's SamplesYoung Jackie tells us about how embarrassed he was when his grandmother came to live with the family, eating her potatoes with her hands, sneaking a jug of porter into the house, and not knowing what she’d say in front of his friends. She used to give his older sister Nora a penny from her weekly pension, but he got nothing – not that he would take it from her anyway. If she cooked dinner for the family he’d refuse to eat it.

It was coming up for the time for Jackie’s first confession and he was dreading it – mainly because of the terrifying tales of Mrs Ryan who prepared the children for their first confession and communion. She told him about people who made a bad confession and who started to burn in hell on the spot. His mother couldn’t accompany him for confession so Nora did instead – and she did everything she could to make him feel bad; his sins were so extraordinarily severe that he’d be lucky to come out of it alive.

When he finally gets inside the confessional box, he’s confused as to where she should sit or stand – and decides to climb up onto a moulding high up in the box, much to the priest’s annoyance. As a result, “I lost my grip, tumbled, and hit the door an unmerciful wallop before I found myself flat on my back in the middle of the aisle.” Nora lands him a clip around the ear in fury at his behaviour – but the priest’s reaction shocks them both.

He tells Nora off for being so cruel, and takes Jackie aside and kindly welcomes him to take his first confession, pretending to be horrified at the awful things Jackie has been keeping inside, but in reality finding it all very funny. The priest is the epitome of kindness – and when Nora finds out he has only been given Three Hail Marys (the same as her) she’s mad. “Some people have all the luck! Tis no advantage to anybody trying to be good. I might just as well be a sinner like you.”

It’s a delightful little tale – O’Connor really gets under the skin of this earnest little scamp and plays with his fears only for him to be rewarded with kindness. You know that Jackie will never be scared of going to confession again! There’s clearly a lot of love – critical love maybe, but love all the same – for old Irish traditions of food and drink, family relationships, sibling rivalry and everyone’s relationship with the Church. O’Connor’s writing has a lively lightness of touch that finds the humour in unlikely places and provides the reader – whether they be Irish Catholic or not – a lot to recognise from their own childhood. I really wasn’t expecting the priest to be so kindly and friendly – perhaps that’s a lesson for me not to prejudge the characteristics of people before you’ve met them!

The next story in the anthology is the second of the detached autobiography stories, Warm River by Erskine Caldwell. This is yet another author of whom I of course have heard but never read, so I will be fascinated to see what his style and content is like!

The Points of View Challenge – A & P – John Updike

John UpdikeJohn Updike (1932 – 2009)

American novelist (Rabbit series of novels, The Witches of Eastwick), poet, short-story writer, art critic, and literary critic.

A & P, first published in the New Yorker magazine, July 22 1961, and then in the collection Pigeon Feathers, in 1962

Available to read online here

This is the fifth and final story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration.

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!


A & P


Pigeon Feathers19-year-old Sammy operates one of the checkouts at A & P Supermarket. One day, he’s just ringing up some groceries for a customer when three girls walk in, all dressed in swimsuits – an unexpected delight for Sammy, who accidentally then rings up the same item twice, much to the annoyance of his customer.

His eyes follow the girls admiringly around the store; one of them, whom he calls Queenie, is particularly attractive, and it’s his lucky day when she ends up with her friends at his checkout till wanting to buy a 49c Herring snack. She offers a dollar bill from her cleavage to pay for it, when Lengel, the manager, sees the girls and marches over to them, reminding them that this is not the beach, and next time they come in, they should have their shoulders covered.

At first, Queenie blushes apologetically, but Lengel continues to make his point and she starts defending herself, saying that she’s perfectly respectably dressed. Lengel disagrees and, upset at the treatment he has dealt out to the girls, Sammy quits his job on the spot. Lengel suggests he shouldn’t act so rashly; he’s been a friend of Sammy’s parents for many years and this will be an embarrassment for everyone. But Sammy is determined, ceremoniously removing his A & P apron and bow tie, and leaving Lengel to work at the cash register.

Coming out of the store, Sammy realises the girls have gone. And the regret starts to kick in…

Short and sweet, this wry little tale is amusingly told, with excellent attention to character, particularly Sammy, Lengel and Sammy’s colleague Stokesie. Updike can produce excellent turns of phrase; I particularly enjoyed the description of Queenie’s dollar bill emerging from her costume as “having come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known were there”.

I’ve seen analyses online that suggest the story is symbolic of anti-commercialism and that Sammy represents a voice of reason making a stand against encroaching capitalism. My own view is that this is one of those little stories that just take a slice of life at one particular moment and explores it to the full. There’s no doubt that the unexpected appearance of three girls in swimsuits in a supermarket a long way from the beach is going to cause a young man to let his mind wonder.

His surprise but real repercussion of finding himself out of a job because he did what he thought was The Right Thing will no doubt come as a shock, but as he says, “it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it.” I have no doubt that young Sammy will move on to bigger and better things, so I don’t think anyone needs worry about him.

The next story in the anthology is the first of four detached autobiography stories, First Confession by Frank O’Connor, yet another author about whom I know absolutely nothing!