Emotional distance as narrative strategy in Elizabeth Spencer's fiction.
But for the women in many of her stories, emotional denial is also an important defence strategy, becoming a part of their characters and not just an incident of style. Speaking of The Stones of Elizabeth Spencer in the Broadwell and Hoag interview, Spencer identifies a recurrent theme: "I think many of these stories are about liberation and the regret you have when you liberate yourself. You see, however much you might want to, you cannot hold on and be free" (p. 56). In these stories, those liberating themselves are primarily women; their struggle for freedom necessitates repression of the fear and pain that could overwhelm them and undermine their efforts. In an interview with John Griffin Jones, Spencer says that "women feel themselves very often imprisoned by what people expect of them .... Some people mount a rebellion: they are not going to put up with it."(5) Emotion is one thing that is expected of women, and it can often imprison them in a sense of vulnerability and dependence. For this reason, the rebellion against the control of others sometimes means a rebellion against emotion for Spencer's female characters.
Yet these characters, whose suffering is so muffled by their own defence mechanisms, still manage to generate strong emotion in the reader's mind. This restraint itself gives the author and her creations the power to trouble our thoughts long after we have physically set them aside. Speaking of Spencer's heroines, Peggy Whitman Prenshaw notes that "these characters express the universal modern experience of the self torn between a private, self-conscious inner life and a compromised, shared outer life that demands the forfeiture of consciousness and separateness--the preeminent theme of twentieth-century literature."(6) Because of the universality of this conflict in both literature and life, the reader identifies with the characters' struggles.
Our association, however, is initially obstructed by the women's incomplete experience of their own lives. For them, emotional repression often provides the control that they need to maintain a sense of separateness. Their denial, however, creates a sense of deficiency in the reader's second-hand existence through the work. According to The Encyclopedia of Psychology, "repression is probably the most common of all defenses.... If used excessively it can lead to an overwhelming feeling of tension and fatigue, because a great deal of an individual's energy is required to accomplish and maintain the expulsion of thoughts and feelings from conscious awareness."(7) Readers feel the tension resulting from the character's repression. To alleviate this tension they are forced to compensate by supplying the repressed emotion. By facilitating this vicarious experience of events and actual experience of emotion, Spencer creates a bond between the readers and characters via the shared ordeal.
"Ship Island" describes the struggle of a young woman to escape the expectations of her loved ones and the pain her separation causes her and them. The story begins after Nancy Lewis moves to the Mississippi Gulf coast with her family, her father having lost yet another job in Arkansas. Here, Nancy lives with a "discouraged" mother's dying aspirations of gentility and a defeated father whose outlook on life is summarized by the slogan painted on a china donkey: "If you really want to look like me/Just keep right on talking."(8) Mr. Lewis loves the donkey and its message, and it becomes a symbol of the blame he misplaces for his own failures. Nancy's relationship with Rob Acklen, an upper-middle-class boy who attends the university, should be the perfect chance for her to escape the melancholy existence of home. But Rob's snobby and cliched friends, with their perfect dresses and beautiful houses, impose expectations even more confining than her family's frustration, and they instigate her attempt at separateness. Fleeing those who wish to change or restrain her, Nancy rides to New Orleans, a place Rob disapproved of, with Bub and Dennis, two strangers who do not try to control her. After many drinks in New Orleans, Dennis turns nasty, and she returns bruised both outwardly and inwardly. But her actions and her internalized pain finally liberate Nancy, leaving her isolated and surrounded by a buffer of defenses, like Ship Island itself.
At first, however, we know nothing of Nancy's feelings because we are distanced from them through Spencer's style. At the beginning of the story, Spencer renders Nancy's perspective in the pure physical detail of her surroundings and the events that compose a summer. The style is almost minimalist, with short Hemingwayesque sentences combining to form a picture of the landscape. The story begins with a description of Nancy's abandoned goals for the summer:
The French book was lying open on a corner of the dining room table, between
the floor lamp and the
window. The floor lamp, which had come with the house, had a cover made of
green glass, with a
fringe. The French book must have lain just that way for two months. Nancy,
coming in from the
beach, tried not to look at it. It reminded her of how much she had meant
to accomplish during the
summer, of the strong sense of intent, something like refinement, with
which she had chosen just that spot for studying. It was out of hearing of
the conversations with the neighbors that went on every evening out on the
side porch, it had window light in the daytime and lamplight at night, it had
a small, slanting view of the beach, and it drew a breeze. The pencils were
still there, still sharp, and the exercise, broken off. (p. 85)
The incremental description reminds us of a Hemingway character surviving in a complicated world by avoiding thought and doing small things well. But as the narrator tells us, the exercise is incomplete and Nancy has failed at this small thing; her coping strategies are not working.
Another minimizing technique of Spencer's style is the deliberate flattening effect of her language. When Nancy first meets Rob Acklen, instead of a dramatic build-up to the event, we get--in one of the longest sentences of the story--a catalog of all the ordinary people who could ring the doorbell that summer morning, all of whom are described more interestingly than the one who is actually there:
She was expecting Mrs. Nattier, their neighbor, who had skinny white
freckled legs she never shaved
and whose husband, "off" somewhere, was thought not to be doing well; or
Mrs. Nattier's little boy Bernard, who thought it was fun to hide around
corners after dark and jump out saying nothing more original than "Boo!"
... or Miss Henriette Dupre, who was so devout she didn't even have to go to
confession before weekday Communion and whose hands, always tucked up in the
sleeves of her sack, were as cold as church candles, and to think of them
touching you was like rabbits skipping over your grave on dark rainy nights
in winter up in the lonely wet-leaf-covered hills. Or else it was somebody
wanting to be paid something. Nancy opened the door and looked up, and there,
instead of a dozen other people, was Rob Acklen. (p. 87)
The long, descriptive sentence contrasts vividly with those that precede and follow it. The simile with which she describes Miss Henriette Dupre--a "neighbor lady" Nancy probably sees every day--brings the woman to life before our eyes and differs widely from the next spare and vague sentence. Rob appears in marked anti-climax, the "someone wanting to be paid something" as representative of his father's insurance business. We would expect the appearance of a handsome young stranger to hold more interest for Nancy than the run-down neighborhood's other inhabitants, but Spencer's style subverts the expected emotion.
The author continues to distance us from Nancy's emotions when she describes her trip with Rob to Ship Island. After exploring a ruined fort, the pair make love on the beach for the first time, presumably Nancy's first time ever. Though this event is potentially a romantic and emotional one, Nancy's reaction to it is detached and uninvolved: "The island's very spine, a warm reach of thin ground, came smoothly up into the arch of her back; and it was at least halfway the day itself, with its fair, wide-open eyes, that she went over to. She felt somewhat historical afterward, as though they themselves added one more mark to all those that place remembered" (p. 93). No birds sing, no rockets fire, and Nancy feels, of all things, historical. Their tryst comes to an anti-climactic conclusion when they are joined afterward by the church picnic group. Nothing has changed for Nancy, Spencer tells us, and the islands that appear on the horizon have been there all along. She even gives away the wonderful shell she finds, "purple, pink, and violet inside--a palace of colors; the king of oysters had no doubt lived there" (p. 93), to a boy who tosses it unceremoniously into the sea, minimizing the day's one extraordinary event.
In Rob's world, emotional repression becomes even more important for Nancy because it allows freedom from others' expectations and the opportunity to liberate the self. Rob and his friends, and even Nancy's own family, patronize her, finding her "cute, funny, absurd" (p. 91). Nancy, however, circles them all in her mind, refusing to give them the emotional control to hold her in this limiting role. As Prenshaw says of Spencer's women characters,
Their withdrawal is mainly reactive, an emotional numbing that seems the
only response possible to
expectations that they exist solely to attract, learn from, or take care of
another .... But ultimately, the stronger motive for the action of these
women ... is discovery and assertion of the self.
... In Spencer's vision the autonomous woman stands inevitably apart
from the world--a woman enclosed, but with a difference. She frees herself
from both the easily refused demands of social convention and the more
compelling demands of the beloved."
To react emotionally to those around her is to become vulnerable to their demands. Just as there is "something terrible ... about seeing wallpapered rooms exposed" to the outside (p. 102), for Nancy the exposure of her inner feelings would jeopardize the structural integrity of her individuality. In fact, Bernard Nattier is the only one she is able to "stand in front of and look squarely in the eye" (p. 102). She reacts to him emotionally and honestly, even if only to try to kill him with a purse full of oyster shells, because he expects nothing from her, offering his strange expressions of love unconditionally.
So that they can see past these emotional barriers, Spencer gives her readers clues to the menacing quality that Nancy finds in Rob's world, helping them to understand and experience the emotion she represses. Elsa Nettels remarks that "in `Ship Island,' as in many of Spencer's stories, sudden inexplicable occurrences give an eerie quality to the sharply defined scenes and characters."(10) This quality is reminiscent of magic realism, "in which fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the reliable tone of objective realistic report."(11) But in Spencer's stories, it is not the incidents that are fantastic, only the characters' reactions to them. Many of these events are simply strange coincidences or irregularities of everyday life, but the characters' refusals to react emotionally to them gives them their mysterious quality. Through this inconsistency between the reader's expectations and the character's response, Spencer creates a tension that readers must relieve by supplying their own emotion.
In the Marine Room of the Buena Vista in Biloxi, Spencer generates the subverted emotions in the reader by compelling Nancy to remain inappropriately silent and stoical. Here, perfect little sorority girls with their tiny voices and beautiful clothes are called mosquitoes, reminding us of the mosquitoes on the bayou that bit only Nancy and the scalding rain on the beach that only she and Bub, a stranger, felt. The environment is malicious toward Nancy and seemingly toward her only. But she already knows about mosquitoes, Spencer tells us: "They'll sting me till I crumple up and die, she thought, and what will they ever care?" (p. 100). They will not care or even notice, and rather than dwell on her suffering, Nancy begins her escape from the country club atmosphere to the slightly more seedy and more liberating Fishnet bar. But by allowing us to live through Nancy's experiences with her, Spencer causes us to feel the sting of these patronizing words and the humiliation of a deprived background more than she permits her character to.
In Nancy's move to freedom, she longs to escape the expectations of others, to become emotionless: "She wished only to be like another glass in the sparkling row of glasses lined up before the big gleam of mirrors and under the play of lights" (p. 100). As such, she would not have to perform or feel pain. When she meets Bub, the man from the beach with his friend at the Fishnet bar, he seems to be her own identity (p. 101) because he is able to validate her experience of the world and perhaps provide a release for the emotion that she has been unable to vent. Bub and Dennis have no expectations of her--"just the opposite of Rob Acklen" (p. 103)--and they offer her a route to freedom and autonomy by taking her anywhere she wants to go just because she wants to go there. Dancing with Dennis, "she thought she would certainly sail right on out over the railing and maybe never stop till she landed in the gulf" (p. 104); later, when she drives off into the moonlight with the pair, we feel the same giddy excitement of motion and fear of consequences that she channels into the dance's physical sensations. She chooses New Orleans as her individual fantasy, a place Rob Acklen would never take her. But as Nancy finds, those who have no expectations also have no allegiance. As Prenshaw notes, however, "she does not deny her condition, but chooses to live out her life, wide-eyed and free. Better to live one's painful condition, in harm's way, than to relinquish one's identity" ("Mermaids," p. 22). She returns scarred, but wiser, from her experience; it is then that we feel her emotions most strongly as she struggles to control her new found individuality in spite of the hardships independence entails.
Nancy's emotional silence is most apparent after her return from New Orleans. Through her casual description of the family's actions, Spencer reveals that something has gone terribly wrong. Her mother no longer dresses and serves iced tea to the neighbors, and her father rants mysteriously about his daughter's behavior, reaching such a state that the china donkey's reproachful grin finally hits home (p. 107). But we learn none of the details. Nancy sits above her father on the stairs, physically and emotionally separated. Because Spencer neither releases the emotions nor allows Nancy to look away, she places us in the center of this conflict where we feel the tension of repression and wait for the axe to fall.
Later, when Rob confronts her with her disappearance, we learn for the first time of the bruises covering Nancy's neck and face. Rob asks jeeringly if they were caused by mosquitoes or scalding rain, but Nancy casually dismisses them as Dennis's "particular attention" and adds them to the list of wrongs she has pushed aside: "What he had to say to her was nothing she hadn't heard before, nothing she hadn't already been given more or less to understand from mosquitoes, people, life-in-general, and the rain out of the sky" (p. 109). Her reaction is obviously not an honest one, and its stifling, almost desperate, cynicism shows that she is bruised on the inside as well. Her pain builds up like a dam, which Rob, in his efforts to understand her, almost taps: "He's coming down deeper and deeper, but one thing is certain--if he gets down as far as I am, he'll drown" (p. 109). The emotional denial has been important in Nancy's quest for control; a sudden release could wash away all her efforts, over whelming those who come near in the process. The reader does come too close through the shared experiences and the tension of repression. Nancy quickly evades Rob, diving deeply away to save him and herself, but Spencer will not allow her readers to escape so easily. She leaves them to be drenched in the misery of lost love, isolation, and denial, just as the gull flying overhead is splashed by the "storm-driven sea" of the gulf.
In "I, Maureen" we see a woman's struggle to escape at a later stage in life and on a more psychological level. There is no hope of reconciliation or return when Maureen discovers after her husband's near death that she is an outsider in a supposedly perfect world. Battling madness and searching for the person she once was, Maureen abandons her luxurious married life to move into a run-down apartment in East Montreal. She meets Michel, a mysterious younger man, who uses her apartment as a hideout and her boss's business to complete his artistic projects, and whom Maureen uses in her own way as well. Maureen's isolation helps her find her voice and become her own person. But before her self-realization is complete, she must risk it by returning briefly to that other world, the conventional one, coaxing her seriously ill son back to health through nightly visits to his hospital room. By reaching out from her self-protective shell, Maureen becomes a complete person, able to care without surrendering her separateness.
As Spencer comments, "I, Maureen" "seems like a fail:, book romance. This girl was just thrown into an absolutely opulent and great situation, but she can't stand it. She stifles to death" (Personal Interview, p. 5). Though her lifestyle in Lakeshore is ideal, the world is not her own, and she struggles to come to terms with her own identity. Maureen's almost hysterical denial of emotion as she attempts to escape and to cope with her separateness creates a tone of "unsettled darkness,"(12) an acquiescence to despair that fills us with the dread she hides.
From the opening sentence of the story, Spencer both distances the reader and shows that Maureen distances herself from her own emotions. In telling the story, Maureen the narrator creates a space between herself and the participant Maureen of the past, whom she coolly observes in her memories: "On the sunny fall afternoon, I (Maureen) saw the girl sitting in the oval-shaped park near the St. Lawrence River."(13) By separating the objective teller of the story ("I") from the emotionally vulnerable participant, Maureen places a barrier between herself and her feelings (see Roberts, p. 160), establishing early on the tension of repression. Actually to experience the emotions would cause a loss of control and force Maureen back into the safety of her husband's protection or into an institution. By distancing herself, however, Maureen the narrator also distances the reader from a complete experience of Maureen the participant's emotions. This story's first-person narration, in contrast to the third-person omniscient of "Ship Island," necessitates the narrator/participant split, and so makes the emotional repression more obvious and forces the narrator to undermine herself by revealing the painful experiences that could destroy the control she establishes through denial. The tension is heightened because, in the beginning, we know nothing of Maureen's struggle for freedom; we know only that there is something mysterious and desperate within her that causes her to withdraw.
Maureen the narrator attempts to abandon her unsettling emotions and set them adrift just as Maureen the participant abandoned the stifling home of her husband. Spencer images this abandonment by opening the story with a focus on a young girl in a park playing guitar, experiencing the "tender absorption of mother with child" (p. 341). This girl and her guitar, surrounded by the "hushed circle" of the outside world, becomes a metaphor for the story itself. Just as she plays her music for passers-by, the narrator creates Maureen the participant through her story, also like mother and child, and gives her to the world: "I sought relief from the memories of five years ago by letting the girl with the guitar--bending to it, framed in grass, the blue river flowing by--redeem my memories, redeem me, I could only hope, also. Me, Maureen, stung with the identity of bad memories" (p. 341). She attempts to divorce herself from the stinging emotions of the past by giving them their own identity in art. But as the narrator Maureen discovers, the parent can never be wholly separate from the child. Spencer causes her readers to identify with the I-narrator to whom they listen, and the tension of denial forces them to reconcile the two halves of the persona by responding emotionally.
Through Maureen the narrator's creation of the participant Maureen, we learn of her escape from a confining environment. She contrasts herself with the perfectly luxurious surroundings of her husband's home, revealing that she does not belong. The world is his, and she feels like a shabby intruder. Even the children, by virtue of their perfection, ally themselves with the father. But Maureen the participant does not realize her alienation and attempt to break free from this foreign setting until her husband's near death in a boating accident. The arms that reach out to comfort her and hold her back from the lifeless body remind her of the clutch with which she was immobilized in marriage, giving her the cue to flee: "They encountered no forward force. I was in retreat already, running backward from the moment, into another world which had been waiting for me for some time. All they did was hasten me to it" (p. 343). Free of Denis's loving yet stifling gaze, Maureen sees her chance for freedom and remembers the place where she once belonged, where her identity was her own.
Her first attempt at escape is not a journey into separateness but a journey into death: "Dents did not die; he recovered nicely. All life resumed as before. A month later I made my first attempt at suicide" (p. 344). Life cannot go on as before for Maureen; she tells us she wants to return to her own world, that if she can't, she "might as well be dead." Fortunately, Maureen has other options in her own world and her quest for individuality does not end in death. To become a separate entity and regain her rightful place, she must first find herself and her voice. Doctors and the family pressure her to adopt their voice once again, but this would mean stifling her identity and dying: "Doctors wait for something to be said that fits a pattern they have learned to be true, just as teachers wait for you to write English or French. If you wrote a new and unknown language they wouldn't know what to do with you--you would fail" (p. 344). The participant Maureen has tasted success and found it bitter; in order to survive she risks the failure of speaking in an unknown language.
She discovers the silent voice of emotional repression that gives her the control she needs to escape into a world of her own. This voice is Maureen the observer telling of the experiences of Maureen the participant from the safety of calm detachment. The flat, short statements with which she reports her husband's accident, her own attempt at suicide, and her eventual departure from home indicate, like Nancy's, a need to avoid the emotions that could once again suck away her will. Just as the fractured sunlight in green glass speaks volumes to her that no one else understands, the unexplained actions she seems compelled to take baffle her family and unsettle the reader. This silence, however, is necessary for her escape into separateness. Her frequent relapses into the foreign voice, "every time the world clicked over and I saw things right side up instead of up side down" (p. 346), cause her to rush home to talk things over. But her lack of emotional involvement prevents her from reacting appropriately to the signs here, ruining the encounter and saving her from these binding attachments: "though I knew I was doing this, though my mind stood by like a chance pedestrian at the scene of an accident, interested, but a little sickened, with other things to do, still my voice, never lacking for a word, went on" (p. 346). The safe haven of her own individuality gives the Parthams' world an unreal air of fantasy that her mind cannot take seriously. This distance protects Maureen the observer, who watches without understanding her actions as participant, but creates tension in the reader who attempts to order her perceptions.
In Maureen's encounters with both the Parthams and the outside world, fantasy blends with reality, and we see once again the phantasmagoric quality of magic realism. Some of the fantastic elements seem to be created by Maureen the observer for her own amusement. The reader, however, is often unsure of what is real and what is fantasy, and even Maureen herself sometimes cannot tell the difference. Maureen the participant's visions and the silences with which Maureen the narrator confronts them contain clues to the hidden emotions, enabling the reader to relieve the tension of denial. We know that the events Maureen describes must elicit some response and the unexplained fantasies help us to reconcile her ordeals to the appropriate feelings. One such fantasy occurs on her journey into "enemy" territory, where she goes to patch things up with the Parthams:
Again I came on the bus in the middle of a fine afternoon, calm and right
within myself to "talk things over," sanely to prepare for my return to the
family. I found no one there, the house open, the living room empty. I sat
down to wait. At a still center, waiting for loved ones faces to appear
through a radiance of outer sunlight, I stared too hard at nothing, closed
my eyes and heard it from the beginning: a silent scream, waxing unbearably.
I had come to put out my arms, to say, I have failed to love, but now I
know this. I love you, I love you all. What was there in this to make the
world shrink back, flee, recede, rock with agony to its fair horizons? I
could bear it no longer, and so fled. (p. 347)
Here, the tables are turned and the world that she reaches out for runs from Maureen. No longer the victim, she is a dangerous intruder facing a cringing silence that reproaches her for placing her own needs above those of the perfectly constructed Partham setting. Here, through the silent scream, Spencer causes us to partake of the enormous guilt that Maureen the narrator is unable to express.
Running from the house, Maureen flees from her guilt, bearing a bruise like the mark of Cain on her forehead. But she wonders if the whole experience has been a dream or if she has made the same trip twenty or thirty times without remembering. Perhaps the narrator Maureen, consciously or unconsciously, creates a fantasy to displace her troubling emotions. Though the narrator later dismisses this event as a dream, Spencer compels her readers to experience the pang of shame as Maureen the participant rushes from the Partham home hiding the "purple and gold" sign of her family treachery.
Even in her adopted world of East Montreal, fantasy mixes with reality uncertainly. When Maureen first meets Michel in the photographer's shop, she becomes obsessed with his appearance and with his mission. She represses these thoughts by channelling them into mechanical activities, fussing with the camera equipment and finding him in the lenses. Later, when alone, she imagines "something revolutionary ... in his bones" (p. 353), but soon finds that she was wrong, that he has only come to open a shop selling hippie costumes. This time fantasy is better than reality. Their continuing relationship has the flavor of wish-fulfillment and the narrator Maureen gives us subtle clues that perhaps this too is a fiction. A truncated romantic encounter containing elements of the unreal punctuates the couple's second encounter:
"I hope your business works," I said.
The day before, skirting about among the photographic equipment, we had
entangled face to face among some electrical cords, which we had methodically
to unplug and unwind to find release from a near embrace. Now, he turned from
a scrutiny of his own face to a minute examination of my own.
"If you hope so, then you think it could. Vous le croyez, eh?" ...
His elbow skidded on the desk. His face beetled into my own. It ``as his
eyes that were compelling, better than good, making an importance out of
themselves, out of my opinions, out of me.
"Your thinking so ... why, that's strong. You have power. Vous etes
formidable. That's it madame. C'est ca."
A tilt of the head, an inch or two more, and our mouths, once more, might
have closed together. My own was dry and thirsty, it woke to tell me so.
He straightened, gathered up his pictures, and neatly withdrew. His step
left the doorway empty. I filled the order blank carefully. (p. 354)
This passage at first seems striking because of the indulgent and romantic language that contrasts with Maureen's usual flat, ironic tone and the studied everydayness of her life in the city. She tells us of the accidental near embrace of the day before and proceeds to embellish it with touching words and longing looks. Finally, her physical thirst wakes her, drawing her back to reality, and the ordinary activities of the shop resume.
Because the elements of fantasy are so closely intertwined with the tangible, the reader is not sure how much of this encounter is real and how much is imagined. But Michel's words express a lack that Maureen the narrator cannot verbalize. He tells the vulnerable woman that she is strong; he silently affirms that she is desirable. In him she has romance without the constricting demands or responsibility of a relationship. The fantasy is arrested when Maureen the narrator shifts our attention back to the order blank, shutting off the tap to her hidden emotions and leaving the reader to languish in the wake of her frustrated passion. Maureen's reawakening to her physical surroundings awakens in the reader the desire she represses by refusing, even in fantasy, to push the moment to its crisis.
But her fantasies of Michel do not end here. While she outwardly continues her dreary and risk-free existence, she inwardly imagines herself a princess in a white tower, with Michel as the brave knight and rescuer. Still Maureen the narrator occasionally tempers the imagination with reality to remind herself and her reader of what is real. She reasons that if Michel does not change them all, at least he "kept [her] mind off the divorce papers" (p. 355). Here the lines between fantasy and fact are clearly drawn, but when Michel enters her tower, we are once again unsure if his presence is real or imagined. Ostensibly, Michel is hiding out after setting a fire in his shop, but because no one sees him we do not know if he is really there. His sudden appearance in the place where he had so long been the object of dreams seems too good to be true, and his explanations are vague because they do not interest the narrator. With him returns the sentimental language of their first encounter:
"He leaned wearily toward me, smiling, sallow cheekbone sharp against my
cheek, then holding closer, his mouth searching, and mine searching, too,
finding and holding.... But for such enfoldment as we found, the binding of
my thought was needed, the total silent agreement that a man and women make,
a matched pattern for love. The heart of his gamble was there. He won it"
He comes to her, winning her heart like a prince in a fairy tale, but it is she who willed him there. He binds her thoughts just as he binds her body in his embrace, just as women's thoughts are often bound by the emotions associated with their traditional roles.
But as a fantasy, he can be willed away as quickly as he is summoned. Maureen realizes he has left her tower seconds before she sees Michel return to his shop in a cab "as though home from a long journey, even carrying a suitcase!" (p. 356). Real or not, Michel's presence gives shape and expression to the loneliness she cannot afford to acknowledge. Maureen the narrator's dismissal of his departure marks a return to her usual tone, but the words seem somehow hollow: "He comes and goes. Summer is over. C'est ca" (p. 356). Spencer repeats the words used by Michel in the first encounter, reminding us of Maureen's created bliss and leaving us with her bitter sense of loss.
Just as Maureen the participant had abandoned her family to escape the debilitating emotions that constrained her in an unhappy life, Maureen the narrator creates these fantasies and the story itself to place the emotions at a safe remove from reality. But the visions reveal that the emotions of Maureen the participant still haunt the narrator, and the creator can no more escape the creation than she can completely forget her own children. Her son's illness represents the tug of maternal feelings that burden her with guilt and fear, drawing her back into the traditional role she had forsaken. The bitter winter weather of this section contrasts with the summer-time of her fantasy, and she risks entering this stone of reality to save her child. But when she senses the Parthamness returning with her son's health she takes flight: "I wing, creep, crawl, hop--what you will--back into my own world" (p. 358). Here, she resembles a wild animal escaping a trap, returning with barely its life to its natural habitat.
But Maureen is human, not animal, and she cannot entirely abandon that other world. The story itself is a distancing devise that places Maureen's experience in a safe form, but Maureen the narrator refuses to relegate all her emotions to it. By not telling the reader her son's name, she internalizes it, keeping it in her own heart like a token of her past life she is unable to let go. Her refusal to tell his name also creates a tension for readers. They have shared in her trauma of finding herself in her own world, have trudged through the snow with her, but this last bit of information is denied, making the boy as lost to them as he is to Maureen and causing them to share her grief at parting.
This pain, her experiences with the bitter snow, and her re-entry into the Partham world are learning experiences for Maureen, helping her to grow into separateness. She has faced the reality of risks and painful emotions and returned intact, so she need no longer rely on fantasy for protection. Her last encounter with Michel begins with the potential of romantic fiction as he makes a photo of her hand on a crystal ball and they later spend the night together. But when she realizes the light in the globe has burned her hand, she resists the temptation to offer the pain to Michel in homage: "The pain is mine, active and virulent. It is mine alone" (p. 362). She accepts her suffering as part of her identity, but will not let it overcome her. Consequently, Spencer does not share it with her readers, either; no longer needing to protect herself, the narrator Maureen does not repress this pain, and so does not draw readers in to experience it. She detaches the readers from her story at the end to go their separate ways, just as Michel's poster will be abandoned in apartments in years to come, celebrating life "as fleeting as a dance" (p. 362). For Maureen, it is only important that the poster and her story were created, like the girl's music in the park, to give memories their home and redeem us into life's dance.
By repressing the emotion that traditionally ties them to confining domestic roles, Spencer's female characters become separate and autonomous. "Ship Island" and "I, Maureen" reflect the escape from stereotypical domesticity: Nancy rejects her duty as nice girl and obedient daughter and Maureen abandons the burden of motherhood to give birth to herself. Ironically, Spencer involves the reader with the emotions that the characters hide from themselves in order to break free. Through the tension of repression, Spencer forces us to invest our own emotions in her stories, binding us to her characters in their struggles for separateness. The denial that is the characters' very means of escape traps readers in a tumult of emotion that haunts their memories unforgettably. (1) Eudora Welty, Foreword, The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1981), p. xviii. (2) Personal Interview, February 12,1993. (3) Elizabeth Pell Broadwell and Ronald Wesley Hoag, <<A Conversation with Elizabeth Spencer,>> in Conversations with Elizabeth Spencer, ed. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991), p. 60. (4) William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (New York: Modern Library, 1964), p. 9. (5) John Griffin Jones, Mississippi Writers Talking (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1982), p. 121. (6) Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, Elizabeth Spencer (Boston: Twayne, 1985), pp. 6748. (7) Joseph Rubinstein, et al., eds. The Encyclopedia of Psychology (Guilford, Connecticut: DPG Reference Publishing, 1991), p. 257. (8) Elizabeth Spencer, "Ship Island," in Stories, p.90. (9) Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, "Mermaids, Angels and Free Women: The Heroines of Elizabeth Spencer's Fiction," Southern Quarterly, 21 (Fall 1983), 15-16. (10) Elsa Nettels, "Elizabeth Spencer, in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, ed. Tonette Bond Inge (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990), p. 86. (11) Chris Baldrick, ed. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 128. (12) Terry Lee Roberts, "Ties that Bind: The Fiction of Elizabeth Spencer," Diss., University of North Carolina, 1991. (13) Elizabeth Spencer, "I Maureen," in Stories, p. 341.
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1995|
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