The Unclouded Day by Annie Proulx Storytelling

“The Unclouded Day” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1985, included in the Heart Songs collection. Rich and poor, city and rural bump up against each other. This story is an excellent example of two narrative techniques in particular:

  1. Santee has both an outside opponent and one from within his own group. (Earl most obviously, but also his wife.)
  2. The revelation comes early for Santee, but the story has to conclude with Earl’s ‘fake’ self-revelation before we’re done. If you’d like to write a trickster story, “The Unclouded Day” provides a successful template.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”

In other stories outsiders are largely a source of humor. … “The Unclouded Day” is in some ways typical of the sort of fiction that has been published for years in magazines for hunters and fishers, humorous stories that often feature a wily outdoorsman who gets the better of an arrogant city slicker. [Trickster stories, in other words.] In Proulx’s story Earl [OUTSIDE OPPONENT], a wealthy investment analyst who works at home in a large “Swiss chalet” with “moulded polystyrene pillars holding up a portico roof” hires Santee to teach him how to hunt game birds. Santee quickly decides that Earl has “the reflexes of a snowman” and will never learn to shoot properly, but Earl claims to be undiscouraged. He has read in books that learning to shoot birds is a long and difficult process. Santee would like to quit [DESIRE], but his wife appreciates the extra money he is making [HOME OPPONENT].

After an entire season in which Earl has failed to shoot a single bird, Santee agrees to hunt with him for a second season because, having taken Earl’s money for so long, he feels honor bound to keep hunting with him until he finally succeeds. One day, with a thunderstorm approaching, Earl wrongly believes that he has hit a bird. After Santee’s dog refuses Earl’s order to fetch the nonexistent bird, Santee finds three dead grouse that have just been killed when lightning struck a nearby tree. He praises Earl’s supposed prowess as a hunter, and then uses Earl’s criticism of the dog for not fetching the birds as an excuse to quit. Earl assumes that Santee is jealous, but Santee has the last laugh. Later that night he wonders “what Earl had said when he plucked three partridges that were already cooked”.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

RICH VERSUS POOR

One of the best ways to create interesting character webs in a story — a.k.a. ‘conflict’ — is to put a rich character with a poor one. The difference between their values will naturally come out.

Spoiler alert: Rich people usually come off looking like assholes when put in the same fictional arena as poor people. There has since been some scientific evidence to support this observation — apparently being rich lowers a person’s capacity to empathise. We can see rich versus poor stories not just as a commentary on the rich, but as a commentary on human nature, and what can happen to anybody when they become rich. Would you change if you won a big Lotto tomorrow? We all like to think we would not. But it seems Annie Proulx understood the rich-poor dynamic long before research was done. In “The Unclouded Day” she expresses this human tendency to both despise and emulate riches via Santee’s wife, at first glance a minor character:

For all its humor [“The Unclouded Day”] also includes social commentary. Because he is paying Santee, Earl treats him like a servant. In Earl’s mind this relationship allows him to imply to listeners in the general store that he has shot birds that were actually killed by Santee. Most hurtful to Santee, however, is his wife’s response to Earl’s wealth, and Santee comes to resent how she spends the money he earns from Earl to make their house more like the “gentrified” country homes of the city people.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

THE FAIRYTALE TRADITION OF GREEDY WIVES

There’s something very fairytale about this story. If you read the Grimm volumes you’ll find a series of stories about put-upon men who cannot do enough to provide for their wives. “The Fisherman and His Wife” is a good example. It’s a kind of subversion of the Rags to Riches story.

In these tales, the men’s greedy wives require their husbands do more and more to procure never-ending riches, eventually leading to the family’s downfall. The idea that women are endlessly greedy while their husbands can never provide enough speaks to a long-held misogyny which affects both men and women throughout the ages: Women are excluded from bodily autonomy and earning their own money; men are expected to provide for their entire families. Annie Proulx is not making any gender commentary here, not that I can pick up — Proulx did not create a wife who went out and bought new jewels. Verna clears junk from the yard. She collects river stones to use decoratively in the garden. She repaints the house — a very sensible thing to do given that unpainted houses eventually rot and fall down. So although “The Unclouded Day” has its basis in fairytale, it’s a far more subtle commentary than that. The white stones make an excellent choice for a turning point, because the stones don’t require any money. This is a subtle change in attitude — the nuanced psychology of a couple who have never valued wealth, and now, in late middle age, they must deal with some uncomfortable feelings around that.

THE FAIRYTALE TRADITION OF LIGHTNING STRUCK TREES

Another image reminiscent of fairytale is the burnt tree at the end of the story. This reminds me of “The Juniper Tree”, collected by the Grimm Brothers. In that tale a boy’s bones are buried under a tree, then the tree starts smoking and a bird rises up out of the flame, with the soul of the dead boy. In earlier times, it was sometimes believed that certain birds came from certain trees, probably because from a distance, when a flock of birds scatters from a tree upon which they’ve been roosting, it does seem as if the birds came out of the tree itself. From perhaps the same era as The Juniper Tree is the Biblical story of the Burning Bush.

STORYWORLD OF “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”

Like other stories in the same collection, “The Unclouded Day” features a rural (poor) household compared and contrasted to a newcomer’s (rich) household. In “On The Antler“, the rich newcomers never have that much to do with the rural poor, aside from passing each other in the local store, but in this story Proulx brings two individuals together, one on one.

By the title, you might think this is a story about weather causing issues for people. Proulx makes great use of weather, using it quite often as pathetic fallacy, or ironically so.

It was a rare thing, a dry, warm spring that swelled into summer so ripe and full that gleaming seed bent the grass low a month before its time; a good year for grouse. When the season opened halfway through September, the heat of summer still held, dusty lay like yellow flour on the roads, and a perfume of decay came from the thorned mazes where blackberries fell and rotted on the ground. Grouse were in the briars, along the watercourses, and, drunk on fermenting autumn juices, they flew recklessly, their wings cleaving the shimmering heat of the day.

— Opening paragraph of “The Unclouded Day”

Note as usual for Proulx the juxtaposition: warm, swell, ripe, full <–> decay, thorned, fell, rotted. Rural life is both idyllic and tough, and in a hunting story it’s inevitable, but there’s death all around.

In the work of Annie Proulx there’s always something more than ‘description’ behind her descriptions of weather:

Proulx knows that geography and weather alone are not to blame for these blighted lives. Rather, it is bent politics, commercial exploitation and government neglect. Optimists who preach social rejuvenation get short shrift, along with a piece of native wisdom.

From a review of Close Range, by Mary Flanagan, The Independent

Here we have an environment which is basically quite nice, and it would continue being nice except for these new people coming in. The newcomers are much richer, and so things which seemed fine before now have the potential to seem lacking.

As ever, Proulx connects character to storyworld using various techniques. For instance, the men are compared to their respective guns:

Earl had come to Santee the year before and begged him to teach him how to hunt birds. He had a good gun, he said, a Tobias Hume. Santee thought it overrated and overpriced, but it was a finer instrument than [Santee’s] own field-grade Jorken with the cracked stock he’d meant to replace for years.

Santee’s gun, like its owner, was inelegant and long in the tooth, but it worked well.

PUDDING IMAGERY

Earl is compared to something sweet and insubstantial — a pancake, a local breakfast food I expect:

He wore nice boots, rich corduroy trousers in a golden syrup colour... his voice rolled out of his throat like sweet batter. … “Nice dog,” said Earl in his confectionary voice.

Pancakes are also greasy, like Earl’s voice, ‘buttering’ him up.

Earl oiled Santee with his voice.

Notice how deftly Proulx takes imagery and extends it. She uses word associations rather than spelling out the links. Sweet, batter, golden syrup, oil… All of these things are associated with pancakes yet the word ‘pancake’ is not actually used. He could easily be a waffle. On their first day out they see fallen fruit and ‘dusting in powdery bowls of fine earth’, reminiscent of pudding in general. ‘The bird fell like a nut‘.

The thing about puddings is, effort goes into them looking nice. That’s all they’re for really — there’s little nutritional value — it’s all about how they look and how good they taste. Puddings are about appearance, as Earl is playing at the appearance of hunting:

With his legs spraddled out he looked like an old-time gangster spraying the rival mob with lead.

 

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE UNCLOUDED DAY”

WEAKNESS/NEED

Santee is not someone who wants to be rich. He doesn’t want anything to do with the rich. That’s how he manages any dissatisfaction that might otherwise creep in — he keeps his mind off other people by indulging in the advantages unique (until now) to rural folk: hunting, a certain rural freedom to do your own thing, at one with nature, outside the human hierarchy.

But unfortunately he can’t look away. Not now that he’s being ‘hunted’ in his own right, as an expert grouse catcher with marketable skills. He suggests a weekday, probably hoping that Earl can’t do weekdays, but it turns out Earl has flexible working hours.

Santee said he would go out with Earl on Monday. He didn’t know how to say no.

Another weakness is that he has a conscience. He feels guilty taking Earl’s money when Earl’s got no chance of catching anything. If he could put this feeling aside there’d be no problem.

DESIRE

Santee is a character who is driven by not wanting to do something.

Santee did not care to hunt birds in such high-colored weather. […] Santee longed for the cold weather and unclouded days that lay somewhere ahead…

He does not want to take this new joker out on hunting trips because it’s ruining his own enjoyment.

OPPONENT

Earl is the outside opponent, but to add a layer of interest and explicate the theme of ‘money changes people’, Earl’s own wife, Verna, is also an opponent. She likes the money Earl brings in so she wants Santee to go out with him.

Verna’s opposition is subtle, conveyed mostly in the following paragraph:

“The money is good,” said Verna, giving the porch floor a shove that set the glider squeaking. Her apron was folded across her lap, her arms folded elbow over elbow with her hands on her shoulders, her ankles crossed against the coolness of the night. She wore the blue acrylic slippers Santee had given her for Mother’s Day.

— “The Unclouded Day” by Annie Proulx

Later, she has come with him to Earl’s house, because ‘it was the kind of day people decided to go for a ride’. When they get there and she sees the house, she wishes she hadn’t come. The house has been described in pejorative terms, made of polystyrene. But this is not what Verna’s thinking. The narrator conveys what Earl’s thinking. Verna’s probably thinking she wishes she hadn’t come to see a house so much nicer than her own. She wants a house like that. Santee ‘knew how she felt’, but did he really? He doesn’t tell us. The reader is left to infer Verna’s feelings from the text, and it’s not clear until after reading the entire story that she is attracted to the house rather than fully repelled, as her husband is.

PLAN

Santee can’t think of any Plan to get out of these hunting expeditions — his lack of a good plan is his downfall. The weather does eventually inspire an impromptu plan — he’ll take the lightning struck birds and lie to his client that he got three in one shot. That means he can bring his lessons to an end.

BATTLE

The Battle isn’t always between the main character and the opponent. Well, that’s how it works in a traditional mythic story — the hero battles the dragon — but short story writers can put all kinds of spins on that, according to the world of the story, which may not be suited to a fight, as such.

In “The Unclouded Day”, the Battle scene involves the same dynamics playing out but between his opponent and someone else this time — his opponent’s wife. At Earl’s house, Earl keeps shooting the clay pigeons with his noisy gun and although it’s upsetting his child, he won’t let wife and child go inside. This mirrors exactly how his controlling personality has been working with Santee, equally unable to say no to the man.

On the other hand, you could say the Battle scene of this story is the lightning storm. This one involves death — of lightning struck birds. The characters get wet and uncomfortable — it looks far more like a traditional Battle scene. But I argue the clay pigeon scene as the Battle scene because it is this which inspires Earl’s Self-revelation. In the storm, he’s just going through the motions, waiting for his moment to quit. This is a trickster story, and the Big Battle is part of the trick on Earl, who thinks he’s had some kind of breakthrough of his own:

“I knew something was going to happen today. I guess I was ready for the big breakthrough.”

Of course, the real Self-revelation belongs to Santee, and it happens early in the story.

SELF-REVELATION

Santee’s Self-revelation happens after Verna collects the river stones, paints them white and lays them along the driveway.

Santee saw the beauty of it — the green shorn grass, the gleaming white stones. It all had something to do with teaching Earl how to hunt, but aside from the money he didn’t know what.

After a while he did. It was that she wouldn’t let him quite. She would go out into the yard at the earliest light of hunting days–Santee had come to think of them as work days–walking in the wet grass and squinting at the sky to interpret the character of the new day.

(Self-revelations often coincide with new days and changes in light, especially, perhaps, in short stories.)

There’s a second Self-revelation that underscores the first: Santee’s son Derwin overhears Earl bragging down at the store, and that’s when Santee realises that the servant/master paid relationship is a dynamic that leads Earl to disrespect him (make him invisible) like that. Derwin says, “You don’t owe him nothing'”

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Now Santee has had his Self-revelation — that he is in danger of doing this for years to come — he is in a position to come up with the spontaneous plan of tricking Earl. We’re reminded of the unchanging nature of the future with this description of the landscape:

Nothing moved. They might have been in a painted field, walking slowly across the fixed landscape where no bird could ever fly, nor tree fall.

Earl uses the reason that he can’t have his dog disrespected to call off the hunting expeditions. We know this is the end of them because Earl smirks. However, we’re left to imagine the scene where Earl gets home:

He laughed to himself as he got back into the warm bed, wondering what Earl had said when he plucked three partridges that were already cooked.

This is the end of their hunting expeditions, but it may be the start of their rivalry.

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