Doing penance in the old west: "Sisters" as Andre Dubus's final word on suffering rape.
Conversely, the male penitent, who in "The Curse" is a bystander of rape, attempts to purge his soul in other ways. Mitchell Hayes fails to act, both to stop the rape and to kneel at the end of the story in an ersatz act of penance. The case of Stephen Leness is more complicated. On the one hand, he is absent at the time, and on the other, he still feels responsible. Also, in another setting where such acts may be done with blazing impunity, he sets a purifying fire symbolic of vengeance. Dubus's implication seems to be that it is not for the male bystanders consciously to forbear. To the degree that they were powerless to act at the time--or felt powerless--these male protagonists also enter a problematic dynamic of masculinity and emasculation, as much as they enter a dynamic of penance and grace similar to that of the female victims.
Furthermore, because "Sisters" is not only the last story Dubus submitted for publication but also his last story of rape, "Sisters" is poised as his final word and the putative answer to both the male bystander's and female victim's experiences. In particular, "Sisters" is the culmination of a thematic series of stories Dubus wrote over the course of his career. This thematic series consists of three main narratives of suffering rape and their variant versions; namely, "The Curse," (1988), "Out of the Darkness" (1993), "Riding North" (1998), "About Kathryn," (1999), and finally, "Sisters" (1999). For although Book editors cast it as a new work, "Sisters" is actually a version of the story, "Riding North," published in Oxford Magazine in 1998. (1) The two stories share the same characters and setting but differ in their development and endings. In addition, "Sisters" builds from Dubus's non-fictional account of his sister's rape, "About Kathryn" (1999), earlier published as "Out of the Darkness" (1993), (2) and gives greater voice to the female victims who suffer rape even as it chronicles the perspectives and actions of their male friends or family members who have suffered rape to occur--even if helplessly. These stories all animate the dynamic of penance and grace and of masculinity and emasculation in similar ways: whether female victim or male bystander, their protagonists face a battle of ethical contradictions which frequently needs to be resolved in the practice of secular versions of Catholic rites, such as the Eucharist and Penance, or the Rite of Reconciliation. However, in the end, it is "Sisters" which most resolves the issues of suffering rape first posed in "The Curse." In short, in Northrop Frye's formulation of comedy as completed tragedy and tragedy as unfinished comedy ("The Argument of Comedy"), "Sisters" is the completed version of "The Curse," and consequently, his generically comedic answer to the tragedy of rape.
After a brief discussion of the general context from which these stories emerge, I will turn to summaries and analysis of the specific stories, their key dynamics, their reliance on rites, and finally, to the generic and spiritual implications of the series itself.
Before his death in 1999, Andre Dubus wrote and published a novel, eight collections of short fiction (among them several novellas), two collections of autobiographical essays, and several uncollected short stories. Dubus viewed "the whole world as a Catholic" (qtd. in Samway, 123); therefore, Dubus's stories nearly always involve one or all of three thematic discourses--that of the Catholic Church as center of meaning and value, the symbolic and healing power of rites and ritual on the human heart, and the ethical and spiritual dilemmas that drive human existence. For instance, Dubus once claimed that such works as William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience and Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling initiated the tough questions leading to the ethical and spiritual dilemma posed in "A Father's Story" (Bonetti April 1984). In this story selected for Best American Short Stories in 1984, Luke Ripley is a father who can reveal his daughter's crime of manslaughter and preserve his relationship with the Church or protect her from prosecution and forego his sense of peace. Luke opts for concealment, excusing his actions on the basis that he could not bear to see his daughter's pain. The concluding dialogue suggests that Luke believes his greater love for his daughter than for truth is a kind of "loving in weakness" paralleled by God's own loving us in our weakness (Selected Stories 476).
Many of Dubus's characters suffer through such dilemmas as Luke Ripley's, always to a greater or lesser extent in reference to some articulation of insight into the spiritual realm--with or without the trappings of the Church. Tobias Wolff has said, "His is an unapologetically sacramental vision of life in which ordinary things participate in the miraculous, the miraculous in ordinary things" (qtd. in Hansen, 9). Critics have also drawn parallels between Dubus's work and Walker Percy's. (3) Dubus stories often return to the power of the sacraments, particularly the healing that rites-secular or sacred--have on the human heart. In 1989, Dubus wrote that fiction should be written "honestly" and that "what is central" to it is "the human heart" ("Reply to Letter," 10 Oct. 89). In virtually the same words fifteen years later, Andre Dubus, III quoted his father as saying that he realized that much of his career--"all this time"--he had been "writing about the human heart" ("Introduction" xii).
Yet since many of Dubus's characters commit crimes, break relationships, or are themselves victimized and broken, the heart as center is often itself nudged aside or questioned. In a 1977 essay, "On Charon's Wharf," Dubus meditated on the Eucharist, commenting, "So many of us fail: we divorce wives and husbands, we leave the roofs of our lovers, go once again into the lonely march.... Yet still I believe in love's possibility, its presence on the earth ..." (Broken Vessels 78). What appears to be off-center in these failed relationships is a brokenness nevertheless capable of being healed and redeemed. On July 23, 1986, Dubus was permanently crippled--"broken," in fact--when he was hit by a car while attempting to help two stranded motorists on the highway. Dubus's later work often explicitly addresses the painful convalescence, broken marriage, and loss of child custody occurring in the aftermath of the accident. The fiction and autobiographical essays written after 1986 give an even greater depth to the themes of communion and alienation present in his earlier work. In such stories as "The Pretty Girl" (1983) and "In My Life" (1975), (4) Dubus's characters suffer the problems of assault and loss through rape. However, in the later narratives of suffering rape, the possibility of communion and the struggle against alienation reaches a peak in the penitential efforts of its protagonists to obtain healing and grace.
In the first of these narratives, "The Curse," forty-nine-year-old Mitchell Hayes is the bartender of a New England rural bar who witnesses the gang rape of an unnamed young woman at closing time one summer night. In rotation, five drug-crazed motorcyclists keep Mitchell behind the bar and away from the telephone as they violate the crying and moaning woman. The rapists finally leave, and Mitchell calls the cops, returns the clothes to the girl, who, refusing to look at him, "lays them across her breast and what Mitchell thought of now as her wound" (Selected Stories 377). Mitchell tells his family the next morning that he "should have" and "could have" stopped it (380). Though the rapists are apprehended by the police whom he finally manages to call, his stepdaughter unintentionally epitomizes his dilemma: "You'll make a good witness," Joyce said. "At the trial" (380).
The second of these stories, "About Kathryn," is set in Louisiana, Dubus's birthplace. The first paragraph describes the locale's sultriness despite the winter season where "[i]f you're a woman, you can be raped on your lawn two nights after Christmas, like my sister Kathryn" (3). Her story takes place after work when she senses a man following her to her house. A large man with a knife surprises her at her doorstep, and during the rape at knifepoint, Kathryn nervously talks, accidentally announcing her daughter's presence in the house. She then quickly distracts him by the promise of money from a nearby ATM. Her ensuing screaming and running to the neighbors' scares him off, and her daughter is left unharmed, while she herself begins the spiritual ordeal which is as much a part of suffering rape as is the actual crime.
"Riding North" (1998) and "Sisters" (1999), its later version, both work as the complements to "The Curse" and "'About Kathryn." Both are Westerns set outside San Diego in old California, and through third-person limited perspective, narrate the rape of Adrienne Beaumont and the subsequent succor of her avenger, Stephen Leness. "Riding North" is divided into ten sections, the first section quickly recounting the murder of Adrienne's father, Colonel Beaumont, followed by a much longer account of her rape by the murderer, a big, blond cowboy named Pete Yerby. The second section introduces African-American Stephen Leness and relates his perspective, as he encounters Adrienne grieving over the body of her dead father. He offers to bury her father, and the next section then returns to Adrienne's perspective as she readies her father's body for burial, and so on, each section alternating between the female victim and the male avenger's perspectives as the plot unfolds.
"Sisters" greatly simplifies the structure of "Riding North" by putting the alternating perspectives into two parts: first Adrienne's, then Stephen's. The story is also about half as long as "Riding North." Besides structure and length, the material differences between the two stories arise from the shift in time frame: though largely overlapping with "Riding North," most of "Sisters" takes place after the end of "Riding North." Though either story may be read first, it is better to consider "Riding North" first, as it provides the longer development of an earlier chain of events condensed in "Sisters."
After the burial of her father in "Riding North," Adrienne turns down Stephen's offer to go get the sheriff to apprehend Yerby. She wants Leness to bring him back so she can shoot him. Leness warns her, "I think if I killed a man, it wouldn't go away. I think it wouldn't go away from you either" (104). Nevertheless, Stephen consents to ride north to Fernando, a city near Los Angeles where he believes Yerby would go, wanting "opium and whores" (107). There, he visits his Judy, a former childhood friend turned prostitute after a brief widowhood. She lets him know who and where Yerby is. Judy also tries to ply her trade as she has with Stephen in the past. She quickly deduces that Leness must love Adrienne, but expects him to come back to her. Leness then rides to Yerby's house, where Yerby and his two sidekicks sit at a table, drunk. At their beck and call is the thirteen-year-old orphan Lily, sexually abused in Yerby's household since she was taken after her parents died in a fire. Leness regrets Lily's deep-seated hatred of these men nearly as much as he does her violation, but agrees with her that he'd "like to set this house on fire" (116). He does not; instead, he ties up the men, taking Yerby on the stolen horse and promising Lily care at his sister's. On their return, Adrienne does not shoot Yerby, but exacts her revenge by shooting the hat off his head and pulling him off her father's horse. Some measure of satisfaction is achieved; Adrienne compares Yerby's fallen moans to the "curses of a departing spirit like the legion of demons the Lord sent into the pigs, running to their death" (118). However, her truest hope comes in the reoccurrence of her menstrual cycle, assuring no pregnancy, and only then does she breathe with "relief then gratitude then hope" (119). The story ends with Stephen leaving Lily in Adrienne's care as he goes back to Fernando to free the men and thence to his family's. Stephen promises Adrienne a baseball glove upon his return and tells her to inform Lily that he will burn Yerby's house. "It's evil," he says (120). Dubus leaves us with the image of "Stephen tossing the ball just above his head," then finally, "waving with the glove holding the sunlit ball, Adrienne's arm reaching up, moving" (120).
Dubus begins the first part of "Sisters" as Adrienne is waiting for Lehess to return from the trip back to Fernando. All the events leading up to Adrienne's final confrontation with Yerby, including the account of the rape, occur in a narrative flashback within the space of the first page. The rest of the first part is devoted to Adrienne's meditation on grief, and her extensive interactions and dialogue with Lily, with whom Adrienne expresses thoughts and instruction on hope and forgiveness. The end effect is to have Adrienne bond with Lily. She tells her:
I'm not saying that good comes from evil. I can never say I'm glad Yerby killed Daddy, and that got you away from those men. I wish he were sitting here now. He'd smile at me smoking and he'd love you and let you know it too. Yerby made us sisters. ("Sisters" 55)
In the second part of "Sisters," Dubus narrates Stephen's return to Fernando after having dispatched Yerby to the sheriff. He visits Judy for the second time, the first visit only mentioned in passing. Judy, whose attempt to quit opium has made her ill, also wants to quit prostitution. The causes of her fall are only briefly covered: "she ran away with a medicine man who smoked opium, and soon she did too; in Seattle a man murdered her husband, and Judy had begun to whore" (57). Despite his complicated loyalty, past indiscretions with, and regret for, Judy, he is in love with Adrienne, and Judy knows this. She refuses his help, whimsically dreaming about getting married and vowing to journey home on the morning train. That night Leness carries out the promise he only made in "Riding North"; he sets fire to Yerby's house, evicting the two remaining men and fighting one of them. Dubus develops Stephen as he does Adrienne, replacing most, but not all dialogue with interior monologue. Whereas Adrienne's thoughts and dialogue address forgiveness, forbearance and healing, Stephen's address purification through vengeance. After a reflective morning spent reading the Bible, Leness finally returns to Adrienne and Lily, her adopted sister. The story ends on Adrienne and Stephen's wedding night. Thus, on the whole, "Sisters" is the more optimistic and meditative variant, if not sequel to "Riding North."
More or less hopeful endings aside, both "Riding North" and "Sisters" offer us an idea of what it means to suffer rape either by enduring it or by allowing it to occur. The protagonists in these stories either suffer rape as victims or as literal or metaphoric bystanders. Because of Dubus's profound reliance on a Catholic world view, the male protagonists in these stories feel that they have committed sins of omission if not commission. In "Sisters," "Riding North," and "The Curse," they either desire or act through self-initiated rites which are meant to atone for, heal, or somehow rid the world and themselves of the evil the female victims have suffered. Thus, the central dilemma of Dubus's male protagonists in these stories involves a problematic dynamic of penance and grace, of vengeance and forgiveness. Dubus scholar Mark Osteen notes that Dubus's characters "engage in a rite of reenactment through which they hope to convert the experience or gain control over it" ("Ritual and Reenactment" 74), and that in "The Curse" the male protagonist wants to do so to substitute for the "victims and the perpetrators" (74). He also notes that the rites of the male protagonists "do not yield grace" (75) and are more "sacrificial" than "sacramental" (74). However, the acts of the male protagonists and of some of the female protagonists are just as much penitential as sacrificial, as I shall point out later. Both the female victims and the male characters allied with them--whether bystander or avenger--"suffer" rape. While the female characters suffer and endure the literal violation of rape, the male characters symbolically suffer the trauma, and moreover, suffer for allowing that trauma to occur. Whether they are victims or bystanders, the characters in these stories generally attempt to enact the penance and then purification which leads to grace.
Parallel to this dynamic of penance and grace is that of masculinity and emasculation, which affects the psyche of the male protagonists. Most notably drawing from feminist psychoanalytic criticism, Madonne Miner argues that Mitchell Hayes in "The Curse" suffers from the fear of emasculation, and is in turn bolstered by confirmations of his masculinity ("The Seirenes Will Sing His Mind Away"). In fact, the victim of rape exists to emasculate the protagonist. Writes Miner:
She is the ambulance siren, signaling pain and possible death; and she is Odysseus' Sierene, wooing man first to pleasure and then to death. This woman--any woman--curses man as she requires that he prove his manhood on her behalf. Should he fail, he must suffer the loss of his manhood; impotent, castrated, shrunken and wrinkled, he signifies absence rather than presence. ("The Seirenes" 403)
One of the most compelling issues for critics reading "The Curse" is the significance of forty-nine-year-old Mitchell Hayes's wish to kneel to receive the curse of the young woman raped by five men in his presence. Mark Osteen sees the wish to kneel as a wish for a rite or reenactment to expunge his guilt and powerlessness ("Rite and Reenactment" 83). Madonne Miller interprets this imagined gesture similarly but goes on to argue that his powerlessness is amplified by the sound of the victim's scream--it echoes in his head like the ambulance siren, and most importantly, the voice of Homer's Seirenes. According to both critics, Hayes is not successful in his wish. He cannot act. The difference lies in the meaning of that wish and that failure to act. For Miner, Hayes cannot ward of the victim's threat to his sense of masculinity, and what is the same, his sense of self. Miner sees the kneeling as a furthering of Hayes's emasculation and a suggestion that women are profoundly situated as reminders of men's potential collapse into feminization. Osteen sees it as an articulation of a Catholic rite, which even though not enacted, points to a hope in a greater power. It is not, as I will argue, simply Hayes's desire to bear the pain for the victim, but his hope that in bearing the sin of the crime he will begin the penitential process that leads to absolution for himself and perhaps all men.
Outside of the apparatus of feminist psychoanalytic critique, the powerlessness of the male onlookers suggests the powerlessness that all of us feel when we cannot save the innocent. It also works as a reminder of the paradox in the gift of free will. God is powerless over people who turn away from Him. We also cannot save the rapist whose actions show a deliberate turning away from God's grace. We cannot force him to love God and thereby love us.
Dubus's narration of "About Kathryn" from a brother's perspective is an effort to affirm that men suffer from a woman's rape in removed, albeit painful ways. Dubus hears rather than sees the trauma of a woman he cannot help or save. Yet, unlike Hayes, Dubus does not wish to kneel to receive her curse; instead, he narrates his wonder at her courage to forgive. Todd Field, the producer / writer / director of In the Bedroom (2002), a film based on the short story, "Killings," notes that Dubus's "curiosity and empathy for female characters came from a desire that began early in life 'to understand how my two sisters had to live in the world compared to the way I had to live as a boy'" ("Preface" x). In fact it is this empathy which probably led Dubus to once state that he was "stunned" by the question of how he can write from a woman's point of view: "The jump from one heart to another is of equal distance whether from man to man or from man to woman" (qtd. in Miner, "Jumping" 30). Very few critics have yet disputed his empathy. (5)
"About Kathryn" ends with the instance of just such wonder and empathy. After suffering the disappointment of not being kissed goodbye by his parents, he silently witnesses Kathryn as she stands outside and weeps beneath the moonlight: "I lay still and watched her crying, and I wondered at the sorrow of being my fifteen-year-old sister" (8). The mystery of womanhood for this narrator is not simply the threat of the unknown but rather the beauty and awe of the unknowable other. The last paragraph of the story transitions back into the present, where "[n]ow" Dubus thinks "of her praying for the man who raped her; saying she would have killed him if he had raped her daughter; praying for him; wanting him castrated; praying for him; calling him a jerk" (8). Clearly, Dubus admires his sister despite her deeply conflicted wishes.
But it is this very battle of ethical contradictions that marks the female protagonists' suffering of rape and also highlights their need for reconciliation and thereby grace--the blessing of the successful penitent. "Sisters" shows us that female victims of rape engage in the dynamic of penance and grace as much as do the male characters who feel deeply allied to them. Kathryn's admission that she would kill the man if he tried to do the same to her daughter contradicts her prayers for him, and also represents the uneasy struggle between the desires for revenge and for mercy that those who suffer rape must undergo. Their desires for justice may be shared by a vigilante, such as Stephen Leness, or even a Mitchell Hayes; the difference is that the female victims do not act upon these desires or feel the responsibility to do so for their own sake. Yet Kathryn's ambivalence--her marred martyrdom--neatly mirrors that of Adrienne's when she wants to shoot Yerby but cannot. Adrienne speculates about her forbearance, and we learn--in counterpoint to Hamlet--that her father's ghost appears to her exhorting her not to shoot and presumably kill Yerby: "Adrienne did not shoot Yerby; she could not, maybe because in that long night, her father's first in the earth, his spirit came to her, or she dreamed it, and he looked sadly at her...." ("Sisters" 53). She mentions other reasons in the same sentence--that Leness did not want her to and "Lily wanted her to, and wanted to watch" (53). Similar deterrents occur for Adrienne in "Riding North," although she does not hear Stephen or her dead father actually tell her not to shoot Yerby. In short, Adrienne desires revenge but takes the opportunity to forego it. In this way, "Sisters" suggests that forbearance is the surprising completion to Kathyrn's justifiable but vain desires for her violator's castration and the logical outcome to the prayers for her rapist.
"Sisters" also suggests that forbearance comes to those who suffer through a penitential process to accomplish it. This is the thematic statement that the earlier "Riding North" cannot offer because it does not include the extended aftermath following Yerby's capture. Adrienne does not idly wait for Leness's return but enters into a secular purgatory of suffering, during which she develops a reasoned prayer to God:
I don't ask to be spared grief, but I ask You to return me to the world, let me look at this water and sky and see them, not my pain. She could only think that she must try; that each day she must spend some time, alone and still, smelling the air and looking at the water and sky and hill and the stretch of green and brown and yellow grass that rolled then flattened to the sand at the beach. Just make her body do this, and hope a time would come when she could see beauty. (53-54)
As with the preparation of the heart for the Eucharist, the preparation for Penance is just as contemplative. Dubus's characters' acts and behaviors often symbolize these periods of preparation. The situation is tar more complicated, however, since Adrienne's waiting and prayer must be taken within the Order of Penance or, as it may more rightly be called, "The Rite of Reconciliation," because she is the victim of sin. Adrienne is adamant about her guiltlessness: she later tells Lily, "We were raped. We did nothing" ("Sisters" 56). However, the natural spite which Adrienne admits to--"We hate him and we must not. We want to watch him hang, and we must not want to" (56)--cannot help but echo standard definitions of at least a part of the Sacrament of Penance which begins instead with "contrition for sins" and a "heartfelt sorrow and the intention of sinning no more" (Catholic Encyclopedia). Adrienne's prayer--as a symbol of her suffering and desire for healing--is indeed similar to the penitent's desire for reconciliation with God. As the victim, she is not capable of achieving reconciliation through the "performing of an act of penance or satisfaction" which is "in degree suited to the offense," but she can engage in an act "which is intended to call attention to a renewal of life (cf. Phil. 3:13-16)" (Catholic Encyclopedia). Adrienne asks to be returned to life, and while there is no confession of sins per se, there is a confession of a hatred and a desire for revenge; as such, it is a confession of sins of the heart.
The Stephen Leness of "Sisters" may be farther along spiritually than his counterpart in "Riding North," because he feels more acutely aware of his sins of omission as well as commission. In "Sisters," Stephen Leness "suffers rape" in his past use of his prostitute friend Judy. Although not technically rape, Leness's fornication with Judy, especially in light of their growing friendship and Judy's hope to return home, fills him with a remorse very similar to Hayes's, since Leness was complicit in her downfall, and even worse, does not love her. To emphasize his guilt, Dubus portrays Judy sympathetically: "Have you ever known a whore who quit, and got married?" Judy asks Leness. As unsure as his answers are, Judy can envision quitting opium and enjoying men again after the insensate pall cast by her addiction. "It looks uphill," she confesses to Leness. "But I believe someday I'll be very glad. I might like being with a man once again." Leness's surprise is immediate: "You didn't like it?" Judy's careful distinction, "I like you," momentarily conveys her faintly maternal tone as she tries to salve his bruised ego (58).
In "Riding North," Judy's portrayal is far less sympathetic and Stephen's sense of omission far less acute. Stephen ponders the time before Judy decided to become a prostitute. Left with an opium habit and no husband, she had to figure out what to do. Stephen thought she should go home to her parents, but "did not tell her" (108). Her resolution to become a whore seemed inevitable; or this is what Stephen implies when he thinks she had known "within days of her husband's death" (108), and certainly, it is all we get from her in this version. Judy has the seeds of what she will become in "Sisters." She tells Stephen, "If I weren't a whore you'd want to build me a house" (111). But when he asks her why she is, she replies, "Because I am" (111).
Fittingly, in "Sisters" Stephen Leness is able to enact a much more spectacular penance for his perceived sin of omission and commission. He burns down the house of Yerby, the site of Lily's violation, where Yerby's men--Frank and Will--still reside in their drunkenness. While Will is guilty of neglect, Frank was another of her rapists, so Stephen calls him to a fist-to-fist duel of honor in front of the raging fire. Leness beats him bloody. In going after Yerby and rescuing Lily, Leness also enacts his vigilante justice and self-serving penance. Lily describes him through narrative flashback in part one of "Sisters": "You should have seen Stephen come running into that kitchen with his Colt and double-barrel. He was like an angel" (55). Unlike Hayes's intense but impotent desire to receive the curse for his "suffering" rape--that is, allowing it--Leness's desire for this act of pyrotechnic penance is duly sanctioned. Leness approaches the sleeping household:
... his blood quick, as though he were hunting; but there was more, and it filled his soul and body; he was doing something absolutely simple and right and pure, something his dead father, a minister, would have done; something God would do, was doing, with him, through him. (58)
Leness could be seen as a vigilante in this passage, and certainly, Lily describes his early actions much as if he were an avenging angel ("with his Colt and double-barrel"). However, his wish to help Adrienne and Lily is complicated by guilt from his treatment of Judy and a personal need for revenge. He is a black cowboy in the Old West. He has suffered prejudice and violence at the hands of white men. As he contemplates his assault on the house, he thinks, "what could they do against a cowboy blessed with size and muscle, who had fought and beaten white boys when he was a boy, then men, because of looks in their eyes, the tones of their voices, or because they called him the word he wanted to burn too from the earth" (58). In fact, as he confronts Frank before the fight, he tells him, "You should have gone to Fernando for your pleasures" (59). But then he visualizes Judy, "pretending to enjoy him in her bed," and tells the white man, "you shouldn't have had any pleasures at all. You're not worthy of a woman. You're not a man. You're white and healthy, and look at you" (59). At least some of his tirade results from his own guilt over Judy, and not being "worthy of a woman." As if to forget this, he goes on to incite Frank to fight, explaining that his "hurting" Frank is to be a reminder of his evil act: "So sometimes you know you did evil things with Lily. So there's something in you. Maybe you'll be saved" (59).
For Adrienne as a victim of rape, but not necessarily for Stephen as a bystander, forbearance is a key part of the penitential process because it may serve as the purgation that leads to unconditional forgiveness (6) and thereby grace. We learn this through the story's greatly expanded dialogue between Lily and Adrienne, two victims of rape. Adrienne tells Lily to pray:
"Because, listen, we must get him out of our souls. We're unscathed, Lily, we're unscathed. I pray for him Lily. I pray for him, but it's for me. Only God can take him away; my work is to try. Tonight, when you pray, ask Him to take Frank and Yerby from your soul.... Ask Him to help you forgive." ("Sisters" 56)
Stephen, on the other hand, acts to avenge both Adrienne's and Lily's rape, and to serve out his own version of penance for his use of Judy. To counterbalance the fire that led to Lily's being orphaned and then abused, he sets "another fire, a good one, a cleansing one" ("Sisters" 58). The morning after torching Yerby's house, Stephen reads the Gospel of Mark, contemplating the Sermon on the Mount: "He had given his tunic often enough, and the second meal, but had never turned his other cheek. Maybe someday" (60).
Although their acts of penance seem productive, however we construe them, Adrienne and Stephen cannot receive absolution in an orthodox sense. Dubus frequently includes priests in his stories, but it is more common for characters to act without the benefit of clergy, albeit in sacramental and ritualistic fashion. Grace comes as a hint on the breeze or a symbol within the poetic world of the story. In the case of "Sisters," penance, prayer, setting and genre all convey such grace, but Dubus also relies on the Eucharistic rite, or communion. Adrienne sits on the porch smoking and drinking coffee with Lily, telling her that "Yerby made us sisters" (55). That two females raped by the same man become family is nothing new to Dubus; in 1984, critic Judith Levine wrote that Dubus is distinguished as a writer by "his attitude--practically a credo" in which "there is a connection, however perverted, among friends, lovers and families, not (as in Beattie, or Barthelme, or Carver) alienation" (3-4). More recently, Paul J. Contino addressed the remaking of "familial unity" as a temporary restoration of wholeness in characters, specifically through the enactment and symbolism of the Eucharist ("Andre Dubus's Eucharistic Imagination" 53). On the whole, Adrienne and Leness reach more than a temporary wholeness through their acts of penance and purification, but only a few sentences after her comment to Lily, there is a symbolic allusion to communion:
[Adrienne] drank sweet coffee and inhaled smoke, a frisson that blessed her; for the first time since that day when everything changed, she felt that she was embracing something, and being embraced; felt free of even mortality. (55)
Here Adrienne receives a kind of grace. That Adrienne and Lily buy new clothes in town, read Mark Twain, and dance to Chopin that evening only reinforces this celebratory union and communion, which is tellingly echoed in the nuptial evening celebrations of Stephen and Adrienne at the end of the story. More importantly, Adrienne's sense of grace is not limited to the fact that she gets to live happily ever after. In the period of her painful and preparatory meditations, and in what she tells Lily, she recognizes that she cannot self-cleanse entirely: it is "only God" who can cleanse her soul, and that it is only her "work ... to try" (56).
Given the long, contemplative exposition during Adrienne's waiting for Leness, we can see that work is not an implication that grace must be earned, but that the work is in the meditative preparation characteristic of not only the Catholic's reception of the Rite of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, but also of the Protestant tradition practiced by the Puritans. For example, the Israelites are exhorted, "Prepare your hearts unto the Lord" (1 Sam. 7:3), but in Psalm 10:17, it is the Lord who is supplicated: "Lord, thou hast heard the desire of the poor: thou preparest their heart" (qtd. in Pettit 8-9). The issue of who is responsible for grace--man, woman, or God--is long standing in both traditions. As we have seen with Adrienne, Dubus's characters typically undergo that "period of preparatory meditation on sin and depravity" intended to "'soften' or 'break' the heart, forcing [them] to realize [their] need for grace" (Pettit 17).
That Stephen receives grace after his act of penance is a little harder to tell, but certainly, he partakes of the same family union: he marries Adrienne, and Lily joins them as their ward, adopted daughter or sister. Dubus has Stephen transition quickly from the morning after the fire and his thoughts of turning the other cheek "maybe someday," to his walking his horse toward, not the sunset, but the "remaining weeks of summer, the good work in the sun and, in the evenings, Stephen and Adrienne and Lily dancing" (60). Characteristically, Stephen physically moves into this possible state of grace, being blessed by the "good work" and "dancing"--all poetically corresponding to his preference for action of the body rather than the action of the soul. However. as Dubus is ending the narration, he focuses on Stephen's thoughts on the wedding night, when Stephen:
... felt certainty: he could not say it with words, he felt that he and Adrienne and the stars and sky and moon and earth and sea and somehow all people were one; and that one day he or Adrienne would die. But his sorrow at that was strange, was lovely, and his soul filled him, pushed against his breast and skull, as through reaching for the sea and sky. (60)
Though not in any orthodox sense, here in "Sisters" both Adrienne and Stephen receive grace as signified by their sense of peace and oneness with the universe. "Peace" and "maybe justice" are what Stephen declares he wants in "Riding North" (111), but only partially achieves through Yerby's capture in that story. It is in "Sisters" that the final thoughts of Adrienne and Stephen in "Sisters" seem to eclipse the angst of Hayes and the reverent but detached admiration of Dubus in "About Kathyrn." By telling a similar story set in the Old West, Dubus addresses the problematic dynamics first posed in "The Curse" and continued in "About Kathryn." Only in the Old West would it be likely for a woman to be raped beside the dead body of her father; only here could her hero catch her rapist, bring him to justice, purge the prairie of child abusers, then marry her and start a new family.
Dubus once said that writing a Western was "damn near impossible," (as qtd. in Fields x) and certainly at least part of the reason that Stephen Leness in "Sisters" can successfully enact both penance and revenge results from the Western's reliance on the lone cowboy savior--but not exclusively. Many of his stories demonstrate the supernatural strength of the human spirit. For instance, his story "Rose" (1986) tells of two ordinary people who perform extraordinary feats of human strength: the title character rushes into a fire to save her two children, and a weak Marine recruit lifts impossibly heavy lockers while sleepwalking at night (Selected Stories 203). "I had heard so much about the human spirit, indomitable against suffering and death," the narrator of "Rose" states (204).
Dubus was committed to achieving verisimilitude and subtlety in his fiction; for these qualities alone, some may prefer "Riding North" to "Sisters," because the former generally draws its Adrienne and Stephen closer to flawed humanity. In "Riding North," we still have an identifiable Western, but gone are Adrienne's spiritual exhortations to Lily to try to forgive, and gone is her direct address to God for healing. Adrienne swims in the ocean to cleanse herself, but she cannot pray when she emerges from her battle with the waves: "she could feel only sorrow and hatred, and the sun drying her body" ("Riding North" 100).7 Twice in the story, Adrienne prays the Lord's Prayer but either stops short of saying "as we forgive those" (101), or says it, "knowing she could not forgive" (100). Especially absent are the fiery tone and conflagration of Leness's encounter with Yerby's men. And though Stephen Leness rescues Lily and brings Yerby to justice, gone is the bloody fist fight, and his minister father's imagined blessing on the mission. Stephen still reads a chapter of his bible each day in "Riding North," but when he reflects on the first Christian martyr, "fear moved lightly up his legs and into his back, then out of him; he did not want to be the second martyr named Stephen" (98). He also tells Adrienne, "I've needed to avenge things and I've done it. Sometimes it felt good. Most of the time it didn't" (104). In short, Adrienne has a greater struggle to forbear and Leness is less of an avenging angel wishing to do penance for the evil that men do. Without Judy's intent to reform, and most of all, without the joyful wedding between Adrienne and Leness, "Riding North" becomes a far less romantic and more realistic version of "Sisters."
Yet, it was "Sisters" that Dubus knowingly sent out for publication after "Riding North" had already been published, suggesting, perhaps, that it was this "less realistic" version that Dubus had still to tell and perhaps ultimately preferred. Closer to the extremes present in the worlds of fantasy and science fiction, "Sisters," like the typical Western, matches the supernatural goodness of its heroes with the blank evil of its villains. In the case of "Sisters," Yerby's viciousness qualifies it but is not the focus of the story's greater evil: that is assignable to human prejudice and society as a whole. This idea is presaged in "About Kathryn," when Kathryn tells people about the rape. She recoils at the stigma some people still see for her as a rape victim:
As she tells her story, she hears others, from women. Darkness envelops her: She is on a prairie more than a hundred years ago, in the long cold night and, sheltered by her roof and walls, she listens for a footstep at her door. She says, "I hate this world we live in now." ("Out of the Darkness")
What can this passage mean? That one hundred years ago, that footstep would foretell justice? Or, conversely, that the "world we live in now" is marred by the same harshness of the prairie, where men and women fended off evil in isolation and darkness? Either way, Kathryn's words express a desire for an older world--or, at least a world that should have improved with time. Whether the Stephen, Adrienne or Judy of "Sisters" or of "Riding North" are more or less realistic is less important than the greater truth that both of these stories and their forerunners seem to convey: that human beings are as capable of both phenomenal courage and resiliency as they are of unthinkable evil.
The dark world from which Kathryn emerges presumes a lighter one into which she eventually enters. In this way, though "Sisters" may be Dubus's less realistic version of "Riding North," it is also his suggestion of a lighter world; or, in another formulation, it is the comedic answer to the tragic story, "The Curse." In his 1948 essay, "The Argument of Comedy," Northrop Frye explains the well-known central action of New Comedy--to maneuver a young man towards a young woman. Their marriage will represent a new social unit, and the dramatist will attempt to get all the characters on stage "to witness the birth of a renewed sense of social integration. In comedy, as in life, the regular expression of this is a festival, whether a marriage, a dance or a feast" (452). "Sisters" ends just so: Lily pulls three rocking chairs "close to one another" on the porch and sits "in the middle" on the very night that the "singing and cooking, and laughing" of the marriage reception has filled the house hours earlier (60). As they rock, Stephen even tells them that "he was happy about his family loving them, and about Judy, and the Mexicans bringing guitars and singing" (60). The new family unit has been successfully integrated into the larger society, as Frye reminds us is the ancient pattern. The story literally ends in Adrienne's bedroom, "in the dark," where "for the first time, he followed her." As she lights "one candle on the dresser and turned to face him" (60), the two are brought face to face, as are their two narratives.
If we are to take "Sisters" as a rewriting of, or "second thought" version of "Riding North," as its later submission would imply, Dubus's
preference for marital union and overt religious hope seems significant. Undergirding this significance comes a definitive point in Frye's explanation that tragedy and comedy grew out of the same ritual: "that of the struggle, death and rebirth of a God-man, which is linked to the yearly triumph of Spring over Winter" ("The Argument of Comedy" 454). Frye goes on to state that "the ritual pattern behind the catharsis of comedy, is the resurrection that follows the death, epiphany, or manifestation of the risen hero" (454). Though there is no divine or semi-divine hero who dies in "Sisters," there is Adrienne's death to her life as a daughter and virgin, and her return to life as a purified bride. She is a darker version of the fallen "Hero" in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, who metaphorically dies to her virgin self because of slanderous rumor. There is Stephen Leness's role as cowboy savior, a role which even has him harrow hell, or at least throw the money changers out of the temple. According to Frye's argument, however, there is no need for modern comedy to have a savior figure, New Comedy having undergone a "realistic foreshortening of a death and resurrection pattern, in which the struggle and rebirth of divine hero has shrunk into a marriage..." (455). Even if we have trouble seeing resurrection in "Sisters," the point is that "The Curse" ends in the throes of the unnamed woman suffering rape, before purgation and reconciliation of any kind. Her would-be savior wishes to bear the weight of her rapists' sins as a curse but cannot, and therefore he cannot also experience a subsequent death and return to life. Frye, of course, notes that, from the Christian perspective, "tragedy is an episode in that larger scheme of resurrection and redemption to which Dante gave the name commedia" (455). Or, comedy is simply a finished tragedy, and "Sisters" is simply a finished version of "The Curse"--well, nearly, because in "Sisters, both victim and bystander, both sinning and sinned against, and both scathed and unscathed in their desires for revenge, get to do penance in the Old West. They experience secular absolution and healing grace in a setting not free from dark places but still open and wide in a way Mitchell Hayes's bar could never be.
Anderson, Donald, ed. Andre Dubus: Tributes. New Orleans, Louisiana: Xavier Review P, 2001.
Betts, Doris. "Human and Holy Living." Anderson 31-35.
Contino, Paul J. "Andre Dubus's Eucharistic Imagination.'" Religion and the Arts. 6.1/2 (2002): 52-72.
Dubus, Andre. "'About Kathryn." Meditations from a Movable Chair. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1999.3-9.
--. "Adultery." Andre Dubus: Selected Stories. 1988. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage Contemporaries-Random House, 1996. 406-454.
--. "Anna." Selected Stories 262-82.
--. "The Curse." Selected Stories 376-82.
--. "'The Fat Girl." Selected Stories 233-47.
--. "A Father's Story." Selected Stories 455-76.
--. "A Limited, Beautiful Effort." Novel Voices. Ed. Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2003.45-60.
--. "In My Life." Separate Flights. Boston: David R. Godine, 1975.
--. "On Charon's Wharf." Broken Vessels. Boston: David R. Godine, Inc. 1991.
--. "Out of the Darkness." Health 7.2 (1993): 106-7. Academic Search Elite. EBSCOhost. Marshburn Library, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA. 18 July 2006. <http://web9.epnet.com.ebscoh.resources.apu.edu>
--. "The Pretty Girl." Selected Stories 65-120.
--. Reply to Letter from the Associated Research Unit of the University of Southern California. 10 October 1989.
--. "Riding North." Oxford Magazine 12 (Spring / Summer 1998): 92-120.
--. "Rose." Selected Stories 198-232.
--. "Sisters." Book. May / June (1999): 53-60.
Dubus, III, Andre. "Introduction." We Don't Live Here Anymore: Three Novellas by Andre Dubus. New York: Vintage Contemporaries-Random House, Inc., 2004.
Fields, Todd. "Preface." In the Bedroom: Seven Stories by Andre Dubus. New York: Vintage Contemporaries-Random House, Inc., 2002. ix-x.
Frye, Northrup. "The Argument of Comedy." 1948. Theories of Comedy. Ed. Paul Lauter. Garden City: New York: Anchor Book-Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964. 450-60.
Gresham, Ross. "The Interviews." Anderson 164-73.
Hanley, Brian. "Andre Dubus Amidst the Critics." Anderson 128-42.
--. "Andre Dubus: A Survey of Research and Criticism." Resources for American Literary Study 28 (2003): 1-5.
Hansen, Ron. "Hotly in Pursuit of the Real." America 185.15 (2001): 6-10.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Longman's, Green & Co., 1902.
Kramer, Jerome. Head note to "Sisters." Book May / June (1999): 54.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Trans and ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.
Levine, Judith. "The Times are Never So Bad." Rev. of The Times are Never So Bad by Andre Dubus. Village Voice Litera[C]' Supplement (1984): 3-4.
Miner, Madonne. "'Jumping from one heart to another': How Andre Dubus Writes About Women." Critique 39.1 (1997): 18-31.
--. "'The Seirenes will sing his mind away': Andre Dubus's 'The Curse.'" Studies in Short Fiction 31 (1994): 397-406.
--. "What Cannot Be Told: Gender and the Limits of Storytelling in Andre Dubus's 'Graduation.'" Critique 44.3 (2003): 227-35.
Osteen, Mark. "Ritual and Reenactment in Andre Dubus's Short Fiction." Religion and the Arts 6.1/2 (2002): 73-89.
"Penance." Catholic Encyclopedia. Ed. Robert Broderick. Thomas Nelson, 1976.
Petitt, Norman. The Heart Prepared: Grace and Conversion in Puritan Spiritual Life. New Haven: Yale UP, 1966.
Rodeheffer, Jane Kelley. "The Legacy of The Last Gentleman: Reading Dubus Reading Percy." Religion and the Arts 6.1/2 (2002): 90-112.
Samway, Patrick, S.J. "Andre Dubus: Fictional Truth-Sayer." Anderson 119-27.
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. 1600. The Signet Classic Shakespeare. Ed. Sylvan Barnet, 1964. Ed. David L. Stevenson. New York: Signet Classics, 1989.
Stonehill, Brian. "Memory, the Lens to Look at Life." Rev. of The Times are Never So Bad by Andre Dubus. Los Angeles Times Book Review 14 August 1983: 5.
Weston, Ruth. "Literature in the Twentieth-Century South: Three Overviews." Rev. of Frames of Southern Mind: Reflections on the Stoic, Bi-Racial and Existential South, by Jan Norby Gretlund, Southern Writers" at Centuo's End, ed. by Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins, and Twentieth-Century Southern Literature, by J.A. Bryant. Southern Literary Journal 32.1 (Fall 1999): 102-07.
(1) Jerome Kramer of Book reports that the manuscript of "Sisters" was sent to him two days before Dubus's death in February of 1999. Kramer was aware of Dubus having worked on the story and having been "done with it" at the time of an earlier interview that he had had with Dubus. With no reference to "Riding North," Dubus submitted this later version of it after "Riding North" had been published in the 1998, Spring / Summer issue of Oxford Magazine (University of Miami, Oxford, OH). Kramer wrote, "The story is unedited; while there are questions an editor could have risen to its author, there was, in this case, no one to answer them" (Head note to "Sisters," Book 54).
(2) "About Kathryn" was first published in Health magazine in 1993 as "Out of the Darkness" and subtitled, "a sister's courage inspires a brother's awakening" (106). There are no other substantive differences between the two versions, but "About Kathryn" is much more clearly autobiographical firstly because of its place in Meditations from a Movable Chair, and secondly because it locates Dubus as narrator, where "In Massachusetts, I sit in my wheelchair and listen" (6).
(3) See Patrick Samway, S.J., "Pilgrims and Prophets: The Figure of the Priest in the Fiction of Andre Dubus and Walker Percy." Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, (Fall 1999): 93 +, and Jane Kelley Rodeheffer, "The Legacy of The Last Gentleman: Reading Dubus Reading Percy," Religion and the Arts, 6.1/2 (2002): 90-112.
(4) These earlier stories in which rape occurs provide useful contrasts but are either sufficiently far removed in time from this series or substantially different in their inclusion of the rapist's point of view. "The Pretty Girl" is briefly discussed below; "In My Life" is the first-person narrative of a white woman who comes to feel something like compassion for the black man who raped her and was later executed in the pre-Segregation South.
(5) Vivian Gornick is a notable exception, who in her 1990 New York Times essay, "Tenderhearted Men...." writes that Dubus' stories "seem to occur in a vacuum of history" that renders them emotionally unconvincing (qtd. in Miner, "What Cannot Be Told"). Lucy Ferris also finds Dubus's perspective through women limited, since "no woman ever attempts to construct a dialogue with the divine or carry on a spiritual life outside the symbolic dimension of sexual or maternal love" (qtd. in Weston, 105). Ferris's comment seems particularly untrue of "Sisters," as Adrienne's prayer to God for cleansing and healing arguably transcends either of these dimensions.
(6) This does not hold true in "The Pretty Girl"; Polly Comeau shoots her ex-husband / rapist dead at story end when he arrives unannounced in her bedroom. She does not forgive or forbear. Her estrangement from the Church and God, established earlier in the story, may account for this, but Dubus also once stated that he was "disappointed with Polly" for killing the man (qtd. in Gresham, 170). Even the Adrienne of "Riding North," who is less forgiving than the Adrienne of "Sisters," is able to forbear from shooting Yerby. Further study of "The Pretty Girl" in light of "Sisters" also means consideration of its unique first person narrative of the rapist himself. Ray Yarborough, holds Ross Gresham, is not a figure who "needs to triumph nor a figure who needs to be defeated" (169). "Dubus gives Ray his justifications," writes Gresham (169). The fact that these are not the rapists' stories makes it difficult to include "The Pretty Girl," which is one, in part. "No one revenges Polly or even makes too much of an effort to try," Gresham also states (169). Of course, Gresham's statement overlooks the effort Polly's father makes. Although spurned and humiliated by Yarborough, Polly's father is, in the end, less a man than is Polly--if we apply the dynamic of emasculation and masculinity. Perhaps Dubus's reaction to events in "The Pretty Girl" suggests Dubus's grief at Polly's justifiable need to act and not to forbear.
(7) Once again, "Sisters" and "Riding North" no doubt owe something to the lengthy development of Polly Comeau in "The Pretty Girl," as Dubus narrates the events leading up to, and resulting from, Polly's violation. Like Adrienne in "Riding North," Polly attempts to wash away her corruption through showering is not successful--she needed "six showers, twelve; and time, but it was not only that" ("The Pretty Girl" 100). However, Polly is much more clearly alienated from the Church and its patterns of penance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Polly "wanted to forgive herself but could not because there was no single act or even pattern she could isolate and redeem" (100).
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|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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