Year of Short Fiction Part 3: The Red Pony

The Red Pony is in one sense a novella published by John Steinbeck, but in another sense it is a collection of four short stories, originally published episodically in magazines. This makes it slightly difficult to pin down exactly what date to slap on this. The first story was published in 1933, so it came out before all his most famous works.

I was pretty excited to read this, because Steinbeck is one of the best long-form “family epic” writers. His masterpiece, in my eyes, is East of Eden, which chronicles several generations in great detail. It is true that The Pearl and Of Mice and Men and other of his short works pack a punch, but nothing compares to the deep characterization he pulls of in his longer works.

I’m torn on this one. It’s certainly my least favorite of the short fiction series so far. I can intellectualize it’s strong points, but I didn’t connect with any part of it. And the end is super weird, but we’ll get to that. Obviously there will be “spoilers,” but I haven’t really been saying that considering these stories are a hundred years old and only take an hour or so to read.

All four stories form key moments in Jody’s maturation from childhood to adulthood. Steinbeck does a great job of establishing his innocence in a small amount of space by dropping small details throughout the beginning. One of the most interesting was that Jody had a rifle, but he wasn’t allowed bullets until he demonstrated maturity with it for a full year.

This is Steinbeck establishing family dynamics and rituals. It shows that Jody hasn’t undergone one of the key rituals on the path to adulthood. The first story is about how Jody trusts Billy to take care of a horse that eventually dies. Steinbeck cleverly foreshadows this by mentioning the buzzards at the start that eventually deal the horse’s final blow.

I see the novella as a sequence of four deaths and how Jody matures in reaction to each as he ages. In reaction to the death in the first story, Jody lashes out in anger and can’t understand how the adults in his life didn’t protect him from it.

The second death is stranger. A man comes to the family’s house and wants to live out his last days there because it is where he was born. This brings another perspective to Jody. The man rides off to the mountains with an old, dying horse. Again, the horse and human presumably die, but Jody learns of a more mature way to accept the inevitability of death through this stranger.

The third death is of a pregnant horse. This horse must die to save the pony inside of it. This teaches Jody of the circle of life. Death can bring about new life, which itself will eventually die.

Though Jody doesn’t realize it, this is a redemption story for Billy. Billy had promised not to let the horse die in the first story, and he feels guilt for letting it happen. Here, he promises Jody the colt inside the horse, and he has to kill the horse to deliver it. He succeeds in his promise this time. He gives Jody a horse to make up for the one that died and can let go of his guilt.

The final story doesn’t actually have a death in it, but Jody’s grandfather comes to live with the family. The grandfather participated in traveling west across the country. It was a grand adventure, but the grandfather makes it very clear such adventure is over. This kills Jody’s dreams of doing the same.

This is the final straw in Jody’s maturation. He learned of death, life, violence, the fallibility of adults, and now his boyhood dreams are gone. He must learn to live pragmatically in the real world.

The ending was extremely strange at first.

Jody ran into the kitchen where his mother was wiping the last of the breakfast dishes. “Can I have a lemon to make a lemonade for Grandfather?”

His mother mimicked—“And another lemon to make a lemonade for you.”

“No, ma’am. I don’t want one.”

“Jody! You’re sick!” Then she stopped suddenly. “Take a lemon out of the cooler,” she said softly. “Here, I’ll reach the squeezer down to you.”

Lemonade hadn’t made an appearance for the whole novella. What on Earth could this ending be?

It solidifies the idea that Jody has fully matured. His youthful self merely would have feigned interest in helping his grandfather to get himself a lemonade. The only reason the mother can think of that he wouldn’t want one is that he’s sick. But then she realizes he has matured. He’s acting selflessly, and so she encourages it.

I get what Steinbeck was doing. I just didn’t find it very compelling. I dreaded picking it up when I stopped between stories. There is pretty much no narrative momentum. Part of this comes from the stories being early in Steinbeck’s career, but I think when you look at it broken down in the way I did, it becomes clear that this is first and foremost a carefully constructed exercise. It’s obviously well done. I just didn’t like it much.

Year of Short Fiction Part 2: The Awakening

This week we’ll look at The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I want to situate the novella in time first. To me, this novella is almost a cross between Madame Bovary and Mrs. Dalloway. It is interesting that Madame Bovary is often considered to be the birth of modernism in literature (though in 1856, it was actually a few decades before modernism took hold). Mrs. Dalloway, on the other hand, in 1925, is almost the birth of postmodernism.

The Awakening is smack in the middle of these two novels being published in 1899. All three of these works have female protagonists that feel trapped by their social and marital roles. All three women bravely defy these expectations and then have tragic consequences for doing so. Bovary focuses a lot more on the social aspects whereas Dalloway focuses very much on the internal state of the character.

Chopin writes in the middle of these two modes beautifully (though I’d classify the novella as realism rather than modernism or postmodernism). I think if I had read this book in college, I wouldn’t have really gotten some of the paradoxical sentiments; it takes being married to understand these characters. Early on, Chopin establishes Edna Pontellier as happily married, except not quite.

It would have been a difficult matter for Mr. Pontellier to define his own satisfaction or any one else’s wherein his wife failed in her duty toward their children. It was something which he felt rather than perceived, and he never voiced the feeling without subsequent regret and ample atonement.

This is a brilliant way to put it. There’s nothing in particular that can be voiced that makes either dissatisfied or unhappy. It’s rather just a feeling. I think we’ve all been there.

Later Chopin makes it even more explicit. The husband thinks to himself, I’ve done X, Y, and Z, why do have to be the one to now do this other thing. And it’s sort of these little feelings of entitlement that can build up to something significant even though deep down neither are dissatisfied. Both still love each other. I love how Chopin gets at that feeling through these little details.

Anyway, that’s what I referred to as a paradox before. Globally, one wants to yell at the characters: you’re happy, you can’t even voice any complaints. Yet, internally, it is very easy to identify with these details Chopin drops in for feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction.

The Awakening‘s subject matter is quite a bit different from Bovary despite the plot parallels. Emma Bovary seems to be having her affairs in attempt to escape the vacuous bourgeois life in favor of romance and beauty. In contrast, Edna Pontellier seems to have her affair in a broader struggle to establish an identity separate from “wife” and “mother.” It has a much more positive feminist message and has less to do with romance. Though, of course, there is overlap in these two themes.

I also think Chopin is much more ambiguous in the messages we are to take away. How should we view our roles in family and society? How does one find oneself with all these structures imposing themselves? What is the meaning of Edna’s suicide? These are all explored but no easy answers emerge, probably because there still aren’t easy answers.

As usual, I have to spend some time talking about prose style. I thought there were moments of true brilliance. The sea is a prominent symbol throughout the novella, and some early descriptions are amazing.

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

Edna learns to swim as part of her awakening, and she views this private space in the sea as essential to her freedom. This passage simultaneously is a description, a symbol, a revelation of Edna’s internal state, and a foreshadowing of the sensuous aspect of her awakening and eventual death. That’s a lot to pack into three sentences, and Chopin does it with elegant prose style.

Year of Short Fiction Part 1: Daisy Miller

Let’s dig in to our year-long series. I’ve started with Daisy Miller by Henry James. It might not be the best one to start with, because I wanted to examine how writers tighten up their prose and structure and so on for shorter works. James is known for extreme care in his prose, even in long works like Portrait of a Lady.

In general, I’m going to try to go in chronological order so we can look at how short fiction has evolved. Daisy Miller originally appeared in a magazine in 1878. It is a novella-length work.

The story is told over four scenes. Each scene is basically an event that occurs while Daisy, an American, is travelling in Europe. A lot of James’ themes we’ve seen before appear: reputation, independence, society, roles.

Daisy meets a man named Winterbourne while travelling in Switzerland. She flirts with him, and since they don’t have a history, he can’t tell if she is a free spirit who doesn’t care how society views her or if she is, for lack of a better word, slutty. In either case, he likes that she does what she wants.

They then meet up again the following year. She has taken up with an Italian but still flirts with Winterbourne. He decides she probably just flirts with everyone. She stays out too late with the Italian, and Winterbourne tries to warn her of the danger. She catches malaria and dies.

I knew nothing about this before reading it, so I was kind of surprised at this ending. Much of the second half of the novella revolves around Winterbourne figuring out a note Daisy sends him in which she declares that she cares what he thinks. This draws out the theme of following roles set out by society. In one sense, it indicates she doesn’t care what other people think. In another sense, it shows how much Daisy really cared for Winterbourne. She’d listen to him and no one else.

Winterbourne had the opportunity to save Daisy. He made the decision to not bring her in from the mosquitoes in a heated moment of passion. The novella is warning us about how fast tragedy can strike. Sometimes ridiculous split-second decisions can cost a life. It’s only after it’s too late that Winterbourne realizes how terrible a mistake he made.

But Winterbourne goes on with his life. The tone of the novella suggests the whole thing is gossip, and Winterbourne treats the tragedy as gossip. This seems a warning more relevant for today than for the time it was written. We hear about tragedies and gossip as if they are entertainment, then promptly forget them. There’s something disturbing in how we remove ourselves from the fact that gossip is about a human who has their own feelings and life.

Late in the novella, Winterbourne changes his opinion about Daisy. When she is most taken with the Italian, he sees her as irresponsible and in defiance of society. He later sees her as innocent, and she just didn’t realize how society saw her indiscretions. This was the most interesting to me, because: how many times have we seen the public side of a person only to realize they aren’t at all like that? We have to give people a chance despite whatever reputation they might be carrying when we meet them.

Structurally, James executes the novella brilliantly. For a work so short, many years of time get covered. He accomplishes this by using four focused scenes. The reader then must infer the events between the scenes from context. A lesser writer might fill the reader in with exposition, but this would be boring to read.

One thing I was surprised about was to see that dialogue had a lot of excess surrounding it. Modern sensibilities suggest that the dialogue should speak for itself. Adding too much to the tags is repetitive and distracting. I’m talking about things like:

“Of course I care to know!” Daisy exclaimed seriously. “But I don’t believe it…”

I think most serious editors these days would flag that and either remove “seriously” or change the tag entirely to “Daisy said,” because it’s clear from the words and exclamation point that Daisy is exclaiming and serious. I’m curious to see if this type of excess gets pared back as we move to modern novellas and short stories.