A Rose For Emily by William Faulkner

A Rose For Emily William Faulkner

“A Rose For Emily” is a short story by Mississippi born William Faulkner, first published 1930. I didn’t know of the short story when I listened to the podcast Shit Town.

The theme song to Shit Town is A Rose For Emily by The Zombies. There’s exists a disturbing ironic distance between the sadness of the narrative and the upbeat tune. Now I’ve read the short story and also listened to the podcast, I can see why this song was chosen.

As for the short story itself, “A Rose For Emily” is often returned as an excellent example of naturalism.

William Faulkner‘s A Rose for Emily, a story about a woman who killed her lover, is considered an example of a narrative within the naturalism category. This story, which also used Gothic elements, presented a tale that highlighted the extraordinary and excessive features in human nature and the social environment that influences them. The protagonist, Miss Emily, was forced to lead an isolated life, and that — combined with her mental illness — made insanity her inevitable fate. The environment in the forms of a class structure based on slavery and social change, together with heredity, represented the forces beyond her control.

Wikipedia, Naturalism

FEATURES OF LITERARY NATURALISM

  • Naturalism is a movement from late 1800s to early 1900s.
  • Realism came after Romanticism. (See Wikipedia’s list of literary movements.) Naturalism is basically ‘extreme realism’.
  • Naturalism is all about exploring common values of the ordinary individual, whereas movements which came before included a lot of symbolism, idealism and even supernatural treatment.
  • In naturalism there’s an emphasis on the setting and an exploration of how setting shapes character.
  • Naturalism is based around the idea that science (rather than supernatural explanations) account for all social phenomena.
  • Darwin pretty much changed everything, and naturalism is his influence on art.
  • How do humans interact with nature to become who we are? Naturalist writers explored this question via stories about: natural law, evolution, atavism, and degeneration.
  • We’re now in a ‘post-naturalism’ literary period,

POST GOTHIC

Rather than a ‘gothic‘ tale per se, “A Rose For Emily” might better be described as a callback to a twisted Southern Gothic tale. Faulkner borrowed tropes from this movement without belonging to this earlier movement himself.

STORYWORLD OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”

Emily’s house is your classic house-as-character. Faulkner uses words that more ‘correctly’ describe a human, not an edifice.

It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the big struggle of Jefferson.

Faulkner’s famous description of that house is known as dialectical montage — a technique which emphasises, rather than hides, the discontinuity between one image and another. Montage tends to emphasise connections rather than discontinuities, but not this kind. Dialectical = concerned with or acting through opposing forces.

Note that we learn about Emily’s house before we learn about Emily. Emily = her house.

The local history of this Deep South town is the Civil War, the ghost of “A Rose For Emily”. The war is off the page, but influential nonetheless.

At least one scholar has placed Jefferson in Faulkner’s native Mississippi due to an obscure reference. The narrator mentions many cedars in the cemetery. There are no true cedars in North America, but the misnamed Atlantic White cedar, which is actually a cypress, is native and common to Mississippi. There are few to none Atlantic White cedars in the neighboring states.

TV Tropes

Faulkner talks about Emily’s lineage — her great aunt and so on, and achieves what Annie Proulx also aims for in her short stories — to paint a portrait of a collection of people living in a community, not just one individual. This is based on the idea that individuals never exist in isolation and are therefore pretty uninteresting on their own.

Faulkner plays around with time as if it doesn’t move like an arrow through space. Miss Emily cuts her hair short, ‘making her look like a girl’ once more.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”

A lot has been said about the narration of “A Rose For Emily”, because it is a stand-out example of narration which moves seamlessly from multiple perspective to single. Peter Selgin wrote more about that here, in a guide for writers.

SHORTCOMING

The story opens with Faulkner’s narrator describing men as feeling the appropriate emotions around any dead person (respectful affection) and the women as feeling the inappropriate, unfeeling state of ‘curiosity to see the inside of her house’. Immediately I feel more empathy for the men, but also a little irritated at the gender binary summary. Is this going to be an irritating woman-hating tale? This is literally the first I’ve ever read of Faulkner.

I don’t dig far before finding a thesis which suggests Faulkner wrote women according to four main types:

  1. The Unvanquished — Black and white women who kept the plantations going during the Civil War, or those who held their families together amid disruption.
  2. Ghosts — De-sexed women, usually spinsters, who have lived the greater part of their lives as barren ‘ladies’. Their puritanical backgrounds have caused them to live these unnatural and tragic lives.
  3. Earth Mothers — women who scorn traditional codes and allow their primitive female urges to take over.
  4. Rebels — The inverse of the chaste Southern lady. These women openly reject Southern ideals of womanhood.

Each of these types has her own stock shortcoming. Emily is clearly depicted as belonging to the second category of Faulkner’s women. But she is revealed to be a Rebel.

That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart—the one we believed would marry her — had deserted her. After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all.

Faulkner is writing a variation of the Madwoman In The Attic trope:

As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol.  […] We did not say she was crazy then.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins is another example of this trope.

There is a full list of tropes used in “A Rose For Emily” at TV Tropes.

But is Emily the main character? The town is the main character really. Emily is an interesting artifact of it. Their shortcoming is that they crave drama, pretend to themselves that they care when they’re really just curious. Worst, their curiosity is misplaced. The narrator describes Emily as looking like an ‘idol’ (as in a statue that doesn’t move) without realising that Emily has created an actual statue of her own. The townsfolk have misjudged and underestimated this woman, thinking her pathetic and ‘mad’ when really she is dangerous and Machiavellian.

DESIRE

It’s more about what Emily does not want.

She does not want to leave her house. She’s a shut-in. She does not want to pay her taxes. We can safely assume she can’t at this stage.

OPPONENT

The new aldermen and mayor, who want Emily to start paying her taxes.

The townspeople want her place cleaned up because it smells bad.

PLAN

Four men break into Emily’s house and scatter lime to get rid of the smell. This does get rid of the smell and they consider their job done. They don’t look beneath the surface, to find whatever’s making that smell.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is in section five, which returns to the beginning of the tale (with seconds two, three and four existing as backstory).  The townspeople make the gruesome discovery.

ANAGNORISIS

Not all horror has to be directly bloody or violent with its language. For example, William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” is a good example of a violent story which avoids being directly bloody and violent. Faulkner offers subtle cues and creates an air of mystery without truly revealing Emily’s dark side until the end of the tale—

The man himself lay in the bed. For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.

In this passage, Faulkner tells the audience what happened to a man that disappeared from Emily’s town (and the story) years before. He has been found—or rather, his skeleton, which is subtly revealed through the language: a “fleshless grin.” The reader learns that there has been a murder, who the murderer is, and that Emily is more disturbed than anyone ever could have imagined.

The plot reveal also explains the title. The ‘rose’ in the title is the gay man who Emily took for herself, killing him for her own purposes.

NEW SITUATION

With her Black servant escaped and Emily herself dead, all that’s left of the family is a good story for the townsfolk to tell and retell over and over. The storyteller narrator may have embellished parts of it, but we’ll never know.

Dump Junk by Annie Proulx

dump junk annie proulx

“Dump Junk” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in the Bad Dirt collection. This is a revisioned fairytale based on The Magic Porridge Pot and similar.

Proulx’s shorts stories in many ways allude to, cite, and subvert a number of myths, legends, fairy tales, and folktales converging as common cultural patrimony. Annie Proulx’s short stories in many ways allude to, cite, and subvert a number of myths, legends, fairy tales, and folktales converging as common cultural patrimony.

Benedicte Meilon, The Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature edited by Stephanie Durrans

STORYWORLD OF “DUMP JUNK”



All of these stories are set in Wyoming. Sometimes Proulx makes use of a realworld town, other times she zooms us in as far as the county but invents a fictional town. This is one of those times: Fremont County, Wyoming is a real place (population 40,000); the town of Firecracker appears to be fictional.

The entire county is the size of Vermont, but Vermont has a lot more people packed into it, with a population of 623,000.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “DUMP JUNK”

A woman dies and her children sort out her junk. Because the son and daughter don’t get on, the men do the garage and the women sort out the house. In the process, we learn two backstories in particular: the backstory of Max Stifle, and that of Christina, the daughter. We also learn by extension a bit about Vivian, with emphasis on how poverty-stricken they were ‘in the beginning’.

Sorting out a houseful of possessions is a sobering task many adult children must do at some point, and it often (inevitably? always?) reveals something new about the dead parent’s life. No surprise, this life stage is oft mined by storytellers. Stories are about surprise, and the revelation of a secret = excellent surprise.

This plot was used by Robert James Waller in Bridges of Madison County (which Stephen King holds up as an example of bad writing, by the by).

But because this is Annie Proulx, there will be more to “Dump Junk” than the same-old, same-old ‘adult child learns her parent had hidden depths and a sexual side after all’ trope. Sure enough this one takes a turn. In a system of primogeniture, the son, Bobcat inherits the house. Christina, being a daughter, inherits the kettle (her mother’s prized possession) and everything in the house. Since the house is full of junk and the kettle leaks, Christina has inherited nothing.

But “Dump Junk” takes a sudden turn in genre when Christina wishes her parents had invested in a microwave, and then a microwave is noticed, still in its box. She wishes the old jalopy would start outside. She wishes for a vodka and orange—it appears in the fridge. Proulx is making use of the Rule of Three, in which three times makes a pattern. That’s when the mystery is solved.

Turns out the leaky kettle has magical qualities and can grant wishes. I’ve heard writing advice to the effect of, “Well, if you’re writing fantasy, don’t spring it on the reader. Make sure the reader knows from the first few pages what to expect from the setting.” Implication being: you won’t find the right readers if readers don’t know what genre they’re getting into.

If Proulx ever heard that advice, I doubt she sat up straight. Alongside another fairytale revisioning set on a farm, “The Bunchgrass End Of The World“, this story, “Dump Junk”, starts out as realism. Fairytale magic is sprung upon us with no warning, especially given the story’s place in the rest of the collection.

“Dump Junk” ends in tragedy, because casual wishes work as well as carefully considered ones.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “DUMP JUNK”

“Dump Junk” is a Wyoming re-casting of the Sweet Porridge category of fairytales, in which a receptacle grants the wish of excess in a time of poverty. (I took a close look at The Magic Porridge Pot in this post.) Such tales are classified by Aarne-Thompson as 565.

This category of tale can be seen across time and across cultures. It starts out as a wish fulfilment fantasy but the rule is that it ends with a moral lesson about greed. China gave us stories about a boy with a magic brush, who could paint anything. These are similar. In that case, the boy uses the brush to conquer someone else’s greed. (The Magical Life Of Mr Renny is a picture book riff on that classic tale.)

Annie Proulx isn’t into moral lessons. In contrast, she’s known as a ‘fatalistic’ writer. The term ‘geographical determinism’ is often used.  “It is what it is. Doesn’t matter what you do, you’re a product of your time and place.”

At first a fairytale plot seems to fly in the face of fatalism. If some people have access to a genie, doesn’t that mean they’ve taken control of their poverty-stricken fate? On reflection, this sort of fairytale is exactly in line with Proulx’s world view. Across her stories humans behave in predictable ways, shaped by whatever is available to us in our environment. Access to wealth doesn’t necessarily help people rise up. We’re all at the mercy of some power greater than ourselves, though not in the religious sense. Instead, Proulx makes use of vast geography to turn humans into highly fallible miniatures.

I like stories with three generations visible. Geography, geology, climate, weather, the deep past, immediate events, shape the characters and partly determines what happens to them… The characters in my novels pick their ways through the chaos of change. The present is always pasted on layers of the past.

Annie Proulx

In “Dump Junk” Proulx makes use of not three but four generations to emphasise the minuscule length of a single human life.

SHORTCOMING

The Stifles are a family with major, long-standing internal problems.

Proulx describes Bobcat and Christina’s relationship in a matter-of-fact way, but any man who strangles women in arguments needs to be taken seriously. Strangulation is the most reliable precursor to subsequent murder. Not only that, strangulation (without loss of life) very often results in lifelong injury to the throat area. This is why some governments have started to take choking seriously. New Zealand instituted a new non-fatal strangulation offence specifically around choking and suffocation, and the offence can now carry seven years’ imprisonment.

Bobcat has probably inherited these attitudes from his father, who spent much of his life in the ‘caring’ profession of teaching, but garnered a reputation for maimed hands among the boys he taught shop to. Bobcat remembers his father for his criticisms. Terrible things happened in his classes while Max Stifle was in the toilet, when he should’ve been supervising his unruly students.

The first thing that strikes me about this family is how unusual it is that Max and Vivian lived so long. Most times, only people with money and education make it to over 100. Sixties and seventies is a more common period in which to die. In hindsight, of course, we can deduce that Max and Vivian made the decision to live til 100 each. It took them a further year or two to actually decide to die.

DESIRE

Bobcat and Christina want to clean up their parents’ house as quickly as possible and hightail on out of there. But when the mystery develops, of course Christina wants to find out the truth.

OPPONENT

It helps story conflict that Bobcat and Christina dislike each other a lot. But opposition usually works best if it’s more complicated than simple, long-standing animosity. If there’s no big, outside opposition (e.g. a natural disaster, a supernatural monster), it’s a good idea to introduce a mystery. Then, the mystery functions as opposition.

The mystery here: Why did Vivian Stifle live as long as she did, but suddenly stop doing a lot of the things she used to do? The women can tell exactly when she stopped collecting bags, when she stopped collecting recipes.

Patsy pulled a grocery receipt from one of the sacks on top of the pile. “Actually I think she stopped somewhere along the line. Look at the date – it’s 1954. She must have stopped back then.” She pulled out a sack near the bottom and found a handwritten grocery slip for a hundred pounds each of flour and sugar dated 1924. The amount paid was small as there was a notation that she had brought in six dozen fresh eggs to trade against her purchases.

Out in the shed, their son wonders how Max and Vivian managed to live when they had nothing to live on? He goes through the possibilities. Did they inherit from somewhere? Do they have a secret stash?

PLAN

The initial plan is to divide by gender and get the house and garage sorted quickly.

When Christina discovers the iron teakettle is magic, she tests it out. Then she uses it knowingly.

BIG STRUGGLE

Which is the Battle scene? Sometimes it’s not obvious. And I don’t think it’s obvious here, but whatever it is, it’ll be the bit that comes right before the Anagnorisis. Even this isn’t always easy, because in a story like this, who’s the star?

I believe the “Battle” is the low-key scene in which Christina takes the kettle out to her brother. She’s about to tell him what it can do, but he speaks to her harshly and she suddenly changes her mind. Bobcat has unwittingly lost a big struggle that really never got started.

ANAGNORISIS

Annie Proulx quite often keeps anagnorises from her characters, who keep on keeping on, stuck in a rut, along their fatal paths. But she does makes sure to offer the reader a revelation, and mine comes after this:

Bobcat had had a prostatectomy three years earlier, and the perineal incision had cut both bundles of nerves. He had not had an erection since the operation and was still wearing diaper pads for the accompanying incontinence. Although he was glad to be alive, his condition made him irritable and short-tempered. The sight of his two grandsons, healthy and big, jumping around and talking about cars and girls and music, punished him severely. At the same time he felt pity for them, wanted to warn them that the hard years were coming and their entanglement of emotional and money problems, vexing questions about the cosmos, the hereafter, the right way of things, and then the slow, wretched betrayals of the flesh.

On the surface, Bobcat was responsible for the boys’ death, by arguing that they deserved the old cars, despite them being unsafe. But with this paragraph, and the way Proulx creates a brief “Overview Effect” by taking us up into the cosmos, tells us that Bobcat has unwittingly wished evil upon his grandsons, but indirectly. His envy of youth and his mapping his own old age onto theirs is so silently powerful that the iron teakettle hears him anyway. Christina has possibly involved Bobcat’s wishes by taking it out to him as he worked in the garage.

Apart from this revelation, there’s a twist in the plot of the tale. When Christina wishes her brother dead, she kills an illegitimate brother nobody knew of until now.

NEW SITUATION

Christina has the kettle and she alone knows what it can do. No one else has worked it out. So we can safely extrapolate that she’ll use it, not always wisely, and that her other brother is soon for the scrap heap. But before he goes, he is unwittingly causing harm via his own bad feelings.

TAKEAWAY TIPS FOR WRITERS

  • Study “Dump Junk” if you would like to insert some magic, but you would also like to start out writing a realistic setting. In other words, if you want to keep the fairytale element as a reveal.
  • Because of the big revelation that this story includes magic, it reads quite differently the second time round. We deduce, in hindsight, where Vivian got Christina’s three new dresses from. But even in minor descriptions, knowing hindsight changes the meaning. The ‘strapping hulks’ of great-grandsons is sadly ironic given that they’ve been killed because they weren’t strapped into their car seats.
  • As Proulx describes the junk-strewn house, we get a very clear image of the entire property in a few deft paragraphs. I definitely get the feeling Proulx has done her own large-magnitude clean-up job.

The old lady had gone in for jars, fabric scraps, and old clothing that might be used in a quilt, and, of course, recipes. She was a tireless clipper of recipes for Golden Raisin Hermits, Devil’s Food cake, pickles, leftovers masquerading under such names as “Pigs in Potatoes” (leftover sausages and cold mashed potatoes), “Roman Holiday” (leftover spaghetti with chopped string beans), “Salmon Loaf” (canned salmon, more leftover spaghetti). For decades Vivian Stifle had pasted the recipes in notebooks, account boos, novels, and books of instruction, each collection dated on the flyleaf. There were dozens of them lined up in the parlor glass-fronted bookcase. The recipes disclosed that the Stifles’ diet was dominated by a sweet tooth of enormous proportion. The old lady must have used ten pounds of sugar a week on chocolate cream pie, “Filled Cookies from Oklahoma,” and cream cake. She made her own maraschino cherries, too, and ketchup, the old kind of mincemeat that called for chopped beef, suet, and leftover pickles juice steeped in a crock – food that nobody now knew how to make. Still, the corporate food purveyors had been making headway, for many of the recipes featured Crisco, Borden evaporated milk, Kingsford cornstarch, and other mass-produced foodstuffs. Sometime in the 1950s she had stopped collecting recipes. The last book on the shelf was dated 1955, and there were only a few recipes pasted onto the pages of a Reader’s Digest condensed book.

The detail of rat droppings in the bags really resonates, because that’s exactly what you find when you’re cleaning them out after a rat or a mouse infestation.

“There are just hundreds! Now I save some of the plastic bags, but these – they’re all mouse droppings and dust.” The paper bags stuck to one another in great chunks as though they were trying to return to their earliest incarnation as trees.

“Watch out, Aunt Christina, you can get hantavirus messing with mouse droppings.”

“Dump Junk” is a masterful example of a fairytale revisioning. Proulx has borrowed fairy magic and used ‘the granting of wishes’ as a metaphor for ‘the passing down of intergenerational violence’. Bad feelings travel down. The overall message becomes: A history of poverty and family violence doesn’t just stop in its tracks, even if subsequent generations ostensibly haul themselves out of it, due to living through more prosperous modern times.

Stories We Tell About Women Who Kill

Monster Movie Poster women who kill

There is a strong audience appetite for women who kill men. Storytelling seems to be going through the Age of the Woman Killer right now, with the popularity of Dirty John (podcast and TV series) and a much publicised movie about the Lorena Bobbitt case, which originally happened in the early 1990s. On Netflix you’ll find many TV series about murderers, as well as some about specifically female murderers. (Killer Women with Piers Morgan, Deadly Women.) In these shows, of course, the gender of the killer is presented as her defining attribute.

Among the many reasons why we love crime stories in general, I have wondered if stories about killer women serve to offer men the rare opportunity to consider what it might be like to be scared of a woman. But actually, my theory doesn’t hold up. The stories we tell about women who kill tend to reposition dangerous women back into the role of victim. Very few truly scary women are permitted to remain in our stories without a narrative arc which puts her safely back into her meek, feminine role.

However, I think the discussion around the #metoo movement is finally starting to change the way we tell stories about women who kill.

Facts about women who kill

  • Across various countries, when women are murdered, nearly 1 in 4 of those are killed by an intimate partner.
  • The intimate partner who murders is overwhelmingly likely to be male.
  • Compared to how many women are beaten by intimate partners, women who murder those abusive partners are rare.
  • But when women do kill their abusive male partners, it’s most likely after multiple counts of abuse. She likely fears for her own life at time of killing.
  • Battered women syndrome describe this phenomenon. It is a psychological theory developed in the late 1970s. It is considered an outworking of the woman’s PTSD.
  • If a woman uses this reason in court, she is considered mentally ill. [But is it mental illness, or is it a rational, logical self-defence to which anyone might be driven in the same circumstance? Any answer to that can work both for an against the woman in court.]
  • In America at least, when women kill men, they most often use a gun. Even if they have wounded rather than killed, they’ve usually wounded with a gun.
  • Gender has been under-researched in criminology. We don’t have a good understanding of the psychology of women who kill.
  • Women who kill are less likely to have a criminal history.

The stories we tell ourselves about female victims

  • Whenever these facts are pointed out online, a proportion of voices points out that women can be annoying, and that women kill children too.

Pamela Hill Nettleton made the following observations in a study of magazine coverage of women who kill:

  • There are few stories about women who fight back. This may contribute to a culture in which men feel they can abuse women without physical consequences. Perhaps this is why Dirty John is such a satisfying real life story. The ending is so rare, and includes wish fulfilment, for women, with an underestimated female killer who doesn’t know her own strength until it’s tested. Roald Dahl’s “Lamb To The Slaughter” is a purely fictional example of a cold, calculating woman who gets away with her crime. The novelty is that she doesn’t use the typical weaponry of guns or knives, and that it includes cannibalism. But the novelty is also that this is not a person we associate with cold, murderous intention. Women who fight back are regarded as anomalies in real life situations.
  • Women are held accountable for the violence men do. Sociologist Nancy Berns called this ‘degendering the problem and gendering the blame’.
  • Male violence is seen as violence in general, with gender excised.
  • But female victims are blamed for victim-like behaviours that are particularly attached to their gender.
  • Women’s magazines tend to hold women responsible for male violence. (They choose violent men, they are passive, they are victims, they are shameful for choosing to stay with men with children even after learning the men are violent.)
  • Men’s magazines treat violence against women with humour with no responsibility put on men as a gendered group. (They are not told to curb their anger and stop hitting women.)
  • Women are advised to: Choose different men, avoid adding stress to men’s lives, move far away, change their names.
  • Descriptions of victims often highlight their mental physical and emotional problems, or the couple’s financial problems. Domestic violence is described in terms that assign equal blame to victim and perpetrator.
  • This creates a story in which domestic violence is seen as an inevitable occurrence.
  • At first media depicts battered women as mad, later in the narrative they depict her as bad. This is known as the mad then bad pattern. Mad = emotionally abused to the point where she is mentally ill. Bad = scheming, manipulative. These women are depicted as helpless victims, until they’re behind bars. Then they are described as ‘safely’ behind bars and we’re all good with it.

The stories we tell ourselves about female killers

  • Juries (and audiences) are more sympathetic to women who have been a victim. This isn’t really a surprise.
  • The news media plays a key role in shaping public opinion about these women.
  • Women who kill are sensationalised, titillating stories. In fiction, “The Woman At The Store” by Katherine Mansfield sexualises (in a disgusting way) a female character. The reveal is that this woman has killed her husband. Annie Proulx does the same thing in “The Wamsutter Wolf“. In both stories, the murder is kept off the page, and the reader is left to deduce the violence. In both cases, the woman’s sexuality is underscored—written to disgust and to scare the reader in what amounts to psychological horror rather than gore.
  • Women killers are described as frightened rather than fearsome.
  • Women killers are described as feminine, with femininity emphasised. (Attractive, meek weak, small size compared to their victims, description of clothing and make up, polite, timid etc.)
  • Women killers are sexualised. So are their crimes. (Femme fatale, high heels, seductress etc) When a woman kills a female lover, it might be described as a ‘cat fight’.
  • Women killers don’t mean to kill.
  • Women killers get a backstory. Everyone wants to know what motivates them. We want to know their history of past abuse over time. “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner is all about the troubling back story of a woman who kills. We deduce she is obsessive, a shut-in, not quite right in the head.
  • Stories about women who kill tend to dwell on the point where she picks up and uses her weapon. Writers tend to consider a women who kills a ‘man bites dog’ story. Similarly, in other types of stories there tends to be a strong emphasis on a certain aspect of it. For instance, in stories about transgender experience, there is often uncalled for emphasis on the transformation itself (the application of lipstick, the putting on a dress, the surgeries, in the case of male to female transitions). In portal fantasies, a completely different (and benign example), there is emphasis on the portal itself. In storytelling in general, audiences crave emphasis on ‘transitions’. The point where a woman has enough and picks up a gun is equivalent — in universal storytelling terms — to her Anagnorisis followed by her Battle (the murder), and the consequences are her New Situation.
  • These stories are also redemption stories. As part of her redemption, she is returned to a more acceptable version of femininity: penitent, regretful, truly subordinate.
  • The audience is invited to gaze upon the broken and battered body of the female murderer — abuse which happened prior to her crime. This moves the woman to a more comfortable place for the audience — from predator to victim.
  • As part of the Plan part of the story of women murderers, stories suggest her plan should have been to simply leave her male batterer. As a fictional story, this is satisfying for the audience. As a real life scenario, this is completely unrealistic. When women leave their abusive partners, the risk to their life becomes severely magnified. Leaving is the most dangerous thing she can do.

What we don’t tell in our stories about women murderers

There are several concepts we might turn to when talking about missing narratives. Stuart Hall has shaped the field of racial and ethnic studies. He talks about ‘the silences’. See Policing The Crisis, 1978. There’s also the phrase ‘symbolic annihilation’, a term coined by George Gerbner in 1976 to describe the absence of representation, or underrepresentation, of some group of people in the media (often based on their race, sex, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc.)

The silences in narratives about women who kill

  • Stories of women who describe their decision to kill as necessary, despite being tragic, regrettable etc. (The only time I’ve seen this narrative is in a news program, during an interview with female prisoners. These women are viewed as unrepentant and it surely affects their parole and length of sentence.)
  • Stories which go into the wider culture in which this happens. Apparently, the new Lorena Bobbitt movie is a welcome change in this respect. It took Western culture more than 20 years to produce a reframing of this narrative, which I still remember everyone treating as a joke, even though I was 15 at the time, and living a world away in New Zealand.
  • Narratives which portray women murderers as strong and dangerous and deliberate.
  • Narratives which hold men responsible for stopping the cycle of abuse.
  • Stories which challenge the idea that battered women syndrome is a fact of life, and that men will be killed occasionally as a result, and that law enforcement will inevitably let women down in this regard (but they are doing their best).
  • Stories about concerned and caring men who are speaking out about other men who are abusive. Genuinely good men are rendered invisible in the media.
  • Stories about powerful, accomplished and capable women who find themselves in an abusive relationship. (Dirty John is a welcome new change in that regard, as well.)
  • Stories about the role of patriarchy in creating male violence. (The Gillette ad of early 2019 was perhaps an example of that kind of narrative. It did not go down well.)

 

 

 

The Wamsutter Wolf by Annie Proulx

The Wolf of Wamsutter Annie Proulx

“The Wamsutter Wolf” by Annie Proulx is a short story included in the Bad Dirt collection. The title of the collection comes from this story.

STORYWORLD OF “THE WAMSUTTER WOLF”

This particular setting can be geolocated.

Wamsutter is a town in Sweetwater CountyWyoming, United States. The population was 451 at the 2010 census.

Wikipedia

As of this moment, there’s no mention of Proulx’s short story on the Wikipedia page. I’d have thought someone’d include that, since Proulx is a well-known American writer and, as a result, tends to put places on the map.

An old highway and the newer Lincoln Highway divide the 1.5 square miles of red dirt town of Wamsutter into three portions. The Google car didn’t bother driving all the way in, but allows us a glimpse of the place from the periphery.

McCormick Road Wamsutter

With its bright blue sky, low horizons and red earth vista, this little town could almost exist here in Australia, maybe somewhere near the SA, NT border. The idea that a wolf could live in Wamsutter is already ridiculous. Pan out a bit and you’ll find plenty of greenery nearby-ish.

However, something tells me this is not a story about wolves, per se…

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE WAMSUTTER WOLF”?

Buddy, a man in his mid-twenties is having some bad luck. The jobs he’s taken since finishing school at 16 all seem to end. While house-sitting for his parents back home, the place gets burgled. Buddy gets the blame from all sides. He decides to move to a tiny town called Wamsutter, and try his luck finding work there.

But the bad luck continues when he learns the trailer right next door belongs to the sociopathic bully from high school, Rase Wham. Rase has shacked up with Cheri, from the same year and now they have a pack of kids.

Also hanging round is a man who thinks of himself as a genuine mountain man from an earlier century, though it’s clear he makes far more use of modern conveniences than he’s prepared to let on.

One night Rase breaks his son’s arm. Buddy comes home to find Cheri and her kids all in his trailer, messing it up, stinking it out. He drives them to the hospital and, that night, Cheri gets into bed with him and he has sex with her, nearer the non-consenting end of the rape continuum. He considers it rape.

He can see her plan is to get rid of Rase and turn Buddy into her new partner, so he hotfoots it out of there, and makes the decision to head on up to Alaska, about as far away as he can get from Rase. Buddy’s father knows what Rase is like and on the phone encourages Buddy to high tail it out of there without even stopping to gather his things.

But after Buddy arranges the job in Alaska, he does need to go back for his things. He runs into the family while he’s there. The young child whispers that the wolf got his father and that the mountain man friend is his new daddy now.

SYMBOLISM

Wolf symbolism is used in various different ways throughout the story. We know someone is Proulx’s designated wolf (baddie) but she saves that until the end.

POLITICAL ISSUES

Is “The Wamsutter Wolf” an example of ‘hixploitation‘? We are certainly encouraged to laugh at these people. I found myself laughing out loud then cringing at the next terrible turn point. I’m in no doubt that this is Proulx’s exact intention. People who literally live in trailers among trash make for easy comic targets. We tend to other them. But their struggles are real.

Ultimately, this is a story of domestic violence, and one woman’s way of dealing with it. Our viewpoint character, Buddy Millar, manages to get out of that mess, just as the reader can shut the book. But Cheri has to find a way to go on living, and she proves more genuinely ‘mountain’ than her pretend mountain man saviour.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WAMSUTTER WOLF”

Though “The Wamsutter Wolf” is a far more successful example, the plot and characterisation of “The Wamsutter Wolf” reminds me of “The Woman At The Store” by Katherine Mansfield.

  • Both short stories star an unappealing woman who disgusts the viewpoint character by her unkempt appearance and rabid sex drive. The reader is invited to share in the viewpoint narrator’s disgust of her.
  • In both cases she’s wound up with kids she didn’t plan for (or against).
  • Each story ends with a revelation, from the naive but knowing offspring, that the uncouth woman (perhaps unaided, perhaps not) has gotten rid of her abusive husband by killing him.

SHORTCOMING

The concept of ‘main character’ is problematic in “The Wamsutter Wolf” because we have a viewpoint character and the story of his life, but we also get, through his point of view, the story of Cheri. This is a story-within-a-story.

Buddy has decided to work straight out of school rather than go to college, so he’s at the mercy of temporary work which keeps drying up.

Our sympathy is firmly with him. We learn that while house-sitting for his parents, the house gets broken into. Buddy goes out of his way to recover what items he can, but still gets the blame, despite the fact this could’ve happened while his parents were at home themselves. I had a lucky escape myself at the same age, when I couldn’t get out of housesitting for my boss while she went off on a lengthy trip to Europe. Her place was broken into soon after my house-sitting duties ended. I counted myself lucky it didn’t happen on my watch.

Buddy has a dislike for intellectualism. He sees any sort of knowledge as fake and annoying, which is why he dislikes his cousin Zane, whose speciality is wolves. Yet he could leverage Zane’s connections and get a decent job if he didn’t feel so negatively. By the end of the story Buddy will learn to make use of his connections.

He will also learn to appreciate his father, despite them being at loggerheads a lot of the time.

DESIRE

Buddy Millar wants steady work but he also likes to take the bad dirt roads no one else uses. These two desires don’t mesh well together, since there doesn’t tend to be much work in remote areas.

However, if these desires are going to mesh anywhere, they’ll mesh in Alaska, which is where Buddy is headed by the end of the story.

When he gets drawn into the neighbours’ business he has a strong desire to extricate himself immediately.

OPPONENT

The romantic opponent, if you will, is Cheri Wham, who had the hots for Buddy in high school and decides he’s her next baby daddy after Rase proves himself an irreconcilable abuser.

Proulx draws the comparison between Cheri Wham and the pack rats who have moved into the abandoned trailer Buddy finds. The imagery is extended with Proulx depicting Cheri a fat woman, since pack rats are larger than your ordinary rats.

Most of this applies to Cheri as well as to packrats:

Each species of pack rat is generally restricted to a given type of habitat within its range. Pack rats live anywhere from low, hot, dry deserts to cold, rocky slopes above timberline. Pack rats build complex houses or dens made of twigs, cactus joints, and other materials. These contain several nest chambers, food caches, and debris piles. Dens are often built in small caves or rocky crevices, but when close by human habitations, woodrats will opportunistically move into the attics and walls of houses.

Wikipedia

PLAN

Buddy is a passive character for much of the story, going along with whatever else is happening. He doesn’t want to go into the rathole of a trailer for a grimy coffee, but he does. He doesn’t want to have sex with a woman he finds contemptible, but he does. We put up with these foibles from him because he sometimes does the right thing — he takes the boy to hospital when no one else will.

Eventually he is kicked out of his passivity when he begins to fear from his life. When he makes plans to move to Alaska, that’s when we know Buddy won’t be swept passively into anyone else’s dramas so easily from now on.

BIG STRUGGLE

The battle scene is the one where Buddy thinks Rase might come over to his trailer and kill him. It feels like a scene straight out of No Country For Old Men, with a man sitting behind a door, gun to the ready. But the scene is ultimately anti-climactic.

Proulx could have made a conflict-filled meal out of the phone call between Buddy and his father, in which Buddy tells part of a story and leaves out the more incriminating part (the fact he had sex with Cheri). Writers often default to this under the belief that more conflict is always good, and that characters should never be totally honest with each other. But Buddy is completely honest with his father, which actually feels like a bit of a subversion of what we were expecting. Proulx does cut the conversation in two—the first half happens with the mother, then Buddy has to wait a full day before learning if his dad will help him out. During this time, Buddy’s big struggle is with himself.

ANAGNORISIS

The big plot revelation (which I should’ve seen coming, having recently read Mansfield’s identical plot) is that Graig or Cheri or both have killed Rase Wham.

All through the story I wondered who Proulx was going to designate as ‘the’ wolf (of Wamsutter). This is revealed to us in the final sentence. The wolf is Graig the wannabe mountain man, who has his own pack now.

Buddy’s Anagnorisis is that his father ultimately has his back no matter how tough he acts. He thought his father was tough, but now he’s really been up close and personal with tough. His attitude towards his own cousin therefore takes a turn — he is able to rely on family connections to find work, so with a renewed appreciation for family, he relies upon his annoyingly know-it-all cousin to find him something.

Perhaps he’s partly learned from Cheri to make the most of your connections.

NEW SITUATION

With Cheri’s life pattern now established we extrapolate that she’ll remain with Graig for as long as he treats her well, then, if all goes well, once he starts abusing her she’ll quickly find a new man to be her protector.

Meantime, our viewpoint character Buddy Millar (our Buddy, not Cheri’s) will move on to a new job. We’re left with the feeling that this time his work will be protected and that his life is looking up from here on in.

Like consent itself, happy endings fall on a continuum.