Today I’m diving into my fabulous little short story book, 50 Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane. I don’t have a set plan for making my way through these, so I’ve decided to keep this short and start with the first two.
First up is “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield. (Read it online here.) The story covers a day in the life of the Sheridan family, specifically Laura, on the occasion of a garden party. Certain elements make it understood that the Sheridans are rather wealthy: two-story house, large garden, tennis court, hired band for the party. Their neighbors are poor working-class people, and the Sheridans do nothing to hide their contempt and disgust for the way the poor live. When word comes that one of the neighbor men has been thrown from a horse and killed, Laura alone suggests they cancel the party. Her mother and sisters mock her, calling her extravagant for wanting to cancel a party that took so long to prepare over something as simple as a man’s death. Laura relents, promising herself to think on it after the party. As dusk is falling, Mr. Sheridan brings up the matter, and Mrs. Sheridan decides that, rather than let the remaining party food go to waste, Laura should take it to the grieving widow. Laura reluctantly agrees. Instead of simply dropping off the food as she had hoped, Laura is invited into the dead man’s home, and ushered in to see the body. To her surprise, she finds the man beautiful in death, and finds life more beautiful because of this.
There are a few thing you have to know about this story that aren’t directly mentioned for it to make any sense. First, it was originally published in February, 1922. Second, it is set in colonial New Zealand. Third, Mansfield was a pioneer of this type of stream-of-consciousness prose. Her style of making insignificant, everyday events extraordinary was a significant departure from the norm. With those things in mind, I can understand the importance of the story. I can understand its place in history. Elitist attitudes were common in 1922 New Zealand. The gap between the classes was wide and impassable. It’s only with those things in mind that I was able to wrap my head around the author’s intended themes of contrast: life and death, childhood and adulthood, happiness and depression. In this one day, Laura transitions from girl to woman. She matures both emotionally and morally, although I would argue only slightly.
Bottom line: While I can recognize its importance in the history of literature, I don’t like the story. The blasé attitude to and contempt for the lower class takes me out of the story and gives me a bad impression that I can’t get over as the story progresses.
Next is “The Three-Day Blow” by Ernest Hemingway. (Read it online here.) This story is very simply a conversation between two young men. Nick goes to visit his friend Bill at Bill’s father’s cottage. Over several glasses of whiskey, Nick and Bill talk about baseball, fishing, favorite authors and books, their fathers, and women, specifically Nick’s recent relationship with Marge. These boys talk for some time, but they don’t say much at all.
Most critics discuss the themes that are common to Hemingway’s work: defining masculinity, dealing with the changes of the modern world as the country moved from agricultural to industrial, even biblical connotation. I think this story is more about communication. It is apparent that Nick loves Marge, but he pushed her away. They were going to get married, but they weren’t engaged. Bill is glad Nick didn’t get tied down, but he doesn’t say why. Nick isn’t sure he didn’t want to be married to Marge. In all of the relationships described, there is no real communication. Everyone talks, but no one says anything meaningful.
Bottom line: This story is just as important today as it was in 1925 when it was first published. Drastic changes are happening around us constantly, and we have to be able to talk to one another, intelligently and expressively.
That’s what I have for you today. I’d love to see your reactions. Let me know what you thought of these stories in the comments. DFTBA.