Tag: loyalty

Faulkner, “Hair” (1931)

william faulkner hair

Barber James Carter closes shop for deer hunting season in Umatilla, Florida, 1967. (Florida Memory)

Faulkner’s sentimental streak. Henry Stribling is a barber in Jefferson who disappears for two weeks every April, nobody knows where or why. People call him Hawkshaw, slang for detective, and they play detective, trying to figure out why he disappears, why he takes after a young orphan girl called Susan, inventing all sorts of salacious implications about him though there’s only evidence of propriety on his part. The narrator is a salesman who crosses paths with Henry’s many paths. He’s been a barber elsewhere and quit his job, but not in Jefferson. “Susan,” writes the Digital Yoknapatawpha Project, “clearly belongs in the gallery of promiscuous female characters – Joan Heppleworth, Caddy Compson, Temple Drake, Addie and Dewey Dell Bundren, and so on – whose sexuality occupies, even preoccupies a good part of the text.” The mystery is explained: Henry had pledged to take care of the house of a woman even after she died, paying off the mortgage, maintaining the upkeep every April. He eventually marries Susan and moves there.

American Mercury, May 1931, These Thirteen, 1931. 

Henry James, “The Given Case” (1898)

Piet Mondrian’s ‘Trafalgar Square (1939-43) at MoMA. (© FlaglerLive)

Mrs. Despard is married to a colonel off in India or somewhere. Miss Hamer is engaged to a Mr. Grove-Steward off in India or somewhere. Barton Reeve is running after Mrs. Despard. Philip Mackern is running after Miss Hamer. Both men whose women are being prowled about return from their Indias. Mrs. Despard will reject Barton reeve out of loyalty to her husband (“What I may feel for him–what I may feel for myself–has nothing to do with it”), however horrid he is to her. The final scene between Mrs. Despard and Reeve is powerful for its latent violence. Miss Hamer will drop her fiance for Mackern in a scene of feelings “so divine a thing that lips and hands were gross to deal with it.” A study in symmetry, otherwise too often marred by Henry’s arid rainforest style. Example:

“I dare say my predicament makes me a shocking bore,” Reeve says. I dare say it kind of does.

Collier’s Weekly, December 1898-January 1899

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Yochna and Shmelke” (1977)

Yochna is a pious, homely, rather fat girl. She is arrangedly married to a pious man, Shmelke. They go through all the rituals, down to ensuring their heads are covered even in their most private moments. They copulate once, then Shmelke decides he has to go off to see rabbis, and dies in a terrible accident. His body is carried off by a torrent. Shmelke can’t remarry if his body isn’t found. She had loved him sight unseen, and now must live with him unseen forever. “Her luck had glowed briefly, then been extinguished. What had she done to be so afflicted?” She accepts her fate. She is pregnant.

A well enough told story but more fit for children than much else: the moralizing, The piousness, is syrupy and ultimately unrelated to anything but piousness for its own sake.

The New Yorker, February 14, 1977

Edith Wharton, “The Fullness of Life”

A seemingly hoaky premise turns into a surprising and really affecting story, all hinged on the creaking of the boots of the protagonist’s husband. A woman is dying in the first page and a half, actually dying, whether from illness or suicide is not quite clear: “she had swallowed her noxious last draught of medicine.” She then finds herself in the afterlife, speaking to the Spirit of Life. The story risks being very silly at this point. But this is Wharton, who is not capable of silliness. The Spirit explains it all to her: she is to find her soul mate now, since she didn’t have one while Aline. Her husband certainly wasn’t it. She is ecstatic. She meets him. She connects. Florence, art, literature. He’s the one. He then tells her to come along so they can live in their dream home for eternity. Then it strikes her: it can’t be home, without the creaking of those boots. Can’t be home without husband. She was his soul mate, even if he wasn’t hers. Her loyalty is to him. She can’t bear to know that when his turn comes, he’d arrive and not find her there. This delicious, surprising passage: