The Common Day by John Cheever

“The Common Day” is a slice of life story set around the time of the 20th Century world wars. Though this story was first published after WW2 had ended, the story is set in a time of unrest, when even the most cosseted upper-crust of New Hampshire can’t feel entirely at ease about the future. When dividing the Cheever stories according to location, this is one of his ‘exurban’ or ‘vacation’ stories.


Our viewpoint character, Jim Brown, is spending 10 days in the country at his wife’s family’s house, somewhere in New Hampshire. Jim himself is a city person. When he gets to his mother-in-law’s large country estate, he is rather flattered to find that the male gardener seeks him out. The gardener misses male company, and wants to tell him that all his vegetables are going to waste unless someone orders them to be eaten. Jim also sets some traps for a raccoon who has been making mischief in the crops.

Later that evening, there is an afternoon storm and everyone’s mood seems to alter. The conversation on the terrace takes a sombre tone. The gardener approaches his mistresses and tells her that he won’t be moving the lilies that she had asked him to move earlier that day. He has a bit of an outburst about how all his boss ever does is kill flowers, whereas he is the one who knows all about gardening.

The raccoon gets caught in a trap that has been set for it. Jim finishes it off by shooting it twice in the head. This wakes his niece and her maid, who come to see what the commotion is about. Somewhat reassured, the woman and girl retreat to bed. Jim Brown wishes he could help them somehow, by offering them his light.



New England, in the country. The viewpoint character (Jim) feels more at home in the city, but here he is in the country. The conflict between city and country mirrors conflict between the aristocratic and servant classes, which are perhaps less obvious in the city (where most people lead middle class lives), and only apparent when travelling to the older, larger households in the countryside, where large manors still require staff.

From the fields  came an indescribable perfume, pungent and soporific.

Compared to the stimulation of the city, our viewpoint character feels the country is ‘soporific’.


Published in 1947, the story is set around this time also, though it may have been set before the second world war, as there is conjecture about war breaking out, and what if.


The human hierarchy is gendered as it is monied; the gardener respects Jim’s opinion on things partly because he’s a man, and he misses having a man to talk to about the garden. His feeling that men are superior to women (at least in the realm of gardening) doesn’t help him out when he has to work under a monied woman, and this attitude probably contributes to his angry outburst.

Children are seen and not heard, eating in the servant quarters.


Jim Brown — the viewpoint character, works in the city (in an unspecified job), having married the daughter of a wealthy family. He is in the country for only 10 days. This character functions as a window into this world and is without strong personality himself. Note the generic name ‘Jim Brown’, of which there are no doubt many. As viewpoint character, Jim is not fully part of the story. For example, unlike Nils, who is truly a part of the milieu of the story, Jim’s humour remains unaffected after the storm.

Ellen Brown (nee Garrison)— Jim’s wife. Spends all summer at the natal home in the countryside, only returning to her husband in the city for winter. Young, slender, pretty. Eats breakfast in the sun on the terrace from a tray. Ellen would rather live permanently with her family in the country. One of her favourite things to do is to visit abandoned farms with a view to setting up house there.

Ellen was a woman with many inexpressible fears — of traffic, of poverty, and, particularly, of war — and these remote, improbably houses represented safety and security to her. […] ‘I feel more and more that we’ve got to get some bse away from New York,’ she said. ‘If there was a war, we’d be caught like rats.’

Timmy Brown — Jim and Ellen’s five-year-old son

Emma Boulanger — the French housemaid.

Agnes Shay — an Irish servant. She considers the pantry her domain, and doesn’t let Jim into the preserves. She has also been promoted to Carlotta’s nurse. John Cheever writes a thumbnail character study of Agnes:

Agnes Shay had the true spirit of a maid. Moistened with dishwater and mild eau de cologne, reared in narraow and sunless bedrooms, in back passages, back stairs, laundries, linen closets, and in those servants’ halls that remind one of a prison, her soul had grown docile and bleak. The ranks of service appeared to her as just and inflexible as the rings of hell. She would no more have yielded Mrs Garrison a place at the servants’ table in the kitchen than Mrs Garrison would have yielded her one in the gloomy dining room. Agnes loved the ceremonies of the big house. She drew the curtains in the living room at dark, lighted the candles on the table, and struck the dinner chimes like an eager alter boy. On fine evenings, when she sat on the back porch between the garbage pails and the woodbins, she liked to recall the faces of all the cooks she had known. It made her life seem rich.

Agnes had never been as happy as she was that summer. She loved the mountains, the lake, and the sky, and she had fallen in love ewith Carlotta as a youth falls in love. She worried about her own appearance. She worried about her fingernails, her handwriting, her education. Am I worthy? she wondered. The irascible and unhappy child was her only link with the morning, with the sun, with everything beautiful and exciting. To touch Carlotta, to lay her cheek against the child’s warm hair, overpowered her with a sense of recaptured youth. Carlotta’s mother would return from Reno in September and Agnes had prepared the speech she would make to her: ‘Let me take care of Carlotta, Mrs Bronson! While you were away, I read all those articles in the Daily News about taking care of chidren. I love Carlotta. She’s used to me. I know what she wants…’ […] Agnes had no rivals, but she was in continual torment lest something happen to Carlotta. She would not let her wear a scarf around her neck for fear it would catch on a nail or in some door and strangle the child. Every steep staircase, every deep body of water, the distant barking of every watchdog frightened Agnes. She dreamed at night that the house caught fire and, unable to save Carlotta, she threw herself into the flames. Now, added to her other anxieties, were the steel traps and the rifle. She could see Jim from the nursery window. The traps were not set, but that didn’t make them any less dangerous, lying there on the ground where anybody could step on them. He had the rifle apart and was cleaning it with a rag, but Agnes felt as if the rifle were loaded and aimed at Carlotta’s heart.

Nils Lund — the gardener, a widower who doesn’t have much time for women, especially when they order him around.

He left the driveway for the lawn and came across the grass toward the terrace, his short, faded hair, his spare figure, and the line of this shoulders reminded Jim of a boy. It was as if Nils’s growth, his spirit, had been stopped in some summer of his youth, but he moved wearily and without spirit, like a broken-hearted old man. He came tot he foot of the terrace and spoke to Mrs Garrison without looking at her.

Mrs Garrison — Ellen’s mother and owner of the house. Mrs Garrison has a number of sons who are only briefly mentioned. Constantly singing and talking to herself. A matronly archetype. Her voice is compared to a ‘trumpet’. Nils can’t stand his mistress, partly because she issues orders about what she can and can’t use in the kitchen, and he doesn’t like following them. He also doesn’t like her because she reminds him of his dead wife. He feels bound to Mrs Garrison until death do them part.

Mrs Garrison was indifferent to children […] When Carlotta was dressed, Agnes took her down to the living room. Mrs Garrison was waiting there. it was one of the rituals of that summer that she should spend an hour with Carlotta each afternoon. Left alone with her grandmother, the child sat stiffly in a chair. Mrs Garrison and the little girl bored one another.

Mrs Garrison had led an unusually comfortable life, so well sustained by friends and by all sorts of pleasures that she retained a striking buoyancy. She was impulsive, generous and very kind. She was also restless. ‘What shall we do, Carlotta?’ she asked.

The Raccoon — the raccoon comes at night to eat Nils Lund’s corn. Jim sets traps, which kills it that evening.

Greta — the Swedish cook.

Ingrid — Greta’s daughter, a pale skinny girl of eleven.

Carlotta Bronson — another of Mrs Garrison’s grandchildren. Sickly. Four years old. Mother’s name is Florrie. Like Jim’s family, normally resides in New York.

Shay — it’s not clear who Shay is. He may be Carlotta’s father or he may be a man mentioned in passing, getting married before heading off to war. Or he may simply be ill. Whichever is the case, both Ellen and Mrs Garrison agree that he hasn’t long to live.


Human hierarchies are ridiculously accidental and notoriously unjust. Not everyone is content to ‘know their place’.

And just because the servant class get on with their work and do it well, doesn’t mean they are loyal to their mistresses:

‘Where is she?’ Greta asked.

She’s in there with Carlotta,’ Agnes said.

She was talking to herself in the garden this morning.’

Those of the lower classes are expected to put ego aside for the greater good. This applies to the running of an aristocratic or upper-class household in the same way it applies to a world war. The lower class are expected to sacrifice their lives, if not literally then in spirit.

The idea of ‘human waste’ is symbolised by the vegetables for Nils, who cultivates his produce carefully only to see it go uneaten. When certain productive humans are put to lifelong work on menial duties, this is ‘a waste’.

Why are you better than me? You don’t know how to do anything but kill flowers. I grow the flowers. You kill them. If a fuse burns out, you don’t know how to do it. If something leaks, you don’t know how to do it. You kill flowers. That’s all you know how to do.

Even those in a position of privilege and seeming security can be plagued with always wanting to be somewhere else. That ‘somewhere else’ is very often an imagined place of the future, or else a place from a long-ago memory.

War affects everyone, though, and no amount of money can fully protect you. While Jim is without strong opinions on this, Ellen has obviously given it some thought. Though she lives a very sheltered life by any standard, she is drawn to all of those dilapidated farm houses and wants her husband to start up a business in the country in an area he knows nothing about, because she isn’t feeling sufficiently secure.

Mrs Garrison’s anxieties are more generalised. With less time to live regardless of war, she has her good memories as solace, though even those can turn on her if she isn’t careful.

[Mrs Garrison] remembered her first pearls. She had worn them to a party in Baltimore. It had been a wonderful party and the memory excited her for a moment. Then she felt old.

The following signifies a universal difference between the young and the old. The old wish for the peace of earlier times whereas the young often seem to be wishing their lives away. Both young and old have difficulty living for the moment:

‘I want to be a big lady. I want to be a big lady like Aunt Ellen and Mummy.’

‘And when you’re as big as your mother, you’ll wish you were a child again!’ Mrs Garrison said angrily.

This difficulty of ‘living in the moment’ is captured in the title. ‘The Common Day’ may refer to ‘the present moment’, the hour that is now. Or the title may refer to a day shared by a collection of people from several different walks of life, and the fact that when it comes to wartime, everyone’s in it together. Or it might refer to a particular day for one particular commoner (Nils Lund) when he finally snapped and talked back to his mistress.

Rituals can calm anxious minds.

The habits of each character are described in this story, from the husband and wife who repeatedly spend summers apart, to breakfasts on the terrace to Mrs Garrison’s designated hour to play in lacklustre fashion with her granddaughter. The servants naturally have their own daily patterns:

In the kitchen, Greta and Agnes were drinking coffee. The lunch dishes had been washed and the turmoil that attended dinner had not begun. The kitchen was cool and clean and the grounds were still. They met there every afternoon and it was the pleasantest hour of the day.

Similarly, focusing on minutiae can turn the mind away from death and other catastrophes.

Mrs Garrison hears thunder and thinks of a woman she once knew who was struck dead by lightning. When asked about it, she ends up recalling that there wasn’t even anything to drink at the funeral. By focusing on trivialities such as funeral catering, she manages to avoid really thinking about the woman’s death, and therefore about her own impending demise. This is exactly what her late husband did after she was thrown out of the car; instead of worrying about his wife he checked on his bottles of scotch. (She doesn’t seem to realise she has done just as her callous husband had.)



It was a splendid summer morning and it seemed as if nothing could go wrong.

Whenever we see a sentence such as this near the beginning of a short story we just know something is going to go wrong.

The name of the farm Ellen Brown wants to visit is on ‘Black Hill’.

Several of the characters in this story suffer from anxiety: First there’s Agnes Shay, then Ellen’s anxieties are described, regarding old houses and security and the war.

Weather as Pathetic Fallacy

Cheever isn’t shy of using weather to signal human emotion.

[The storm] raged for half an hour and then blew off to the west, leaving the air chill, bitter, and clean; but the afternoon was over.

The characters’ general anxieties are symbolised by the evening winds:

The odd winds that blow just before dark in the mountains brought, from father down the lake, the words of a song, sung by some children at a camp there…

Other Symbolism

The trap for the raccoon is a fairly obvious symbol for people trapped within their class. The coon thumps his tail against the ground in pain, which comes directly after the scene in which Nils does the same verbally, sick and tired of being told what to do in his garden. The coon does not fare well, shot in the head by Jim. Though the story ends soon after, the reader has a sense of what may become of Nils.

Nils wears boots that are too big for him. This is noted just before he chats back to his employer.

When Jim likes the city but his wife prefers the country this stands in for larger differences in character.

The dilapidated country houses that take Ellen’s fancy serve as an unwelcome foreboding about what life might be like should the country go to war. Everything seems safer in the more bustling city of New York than out in deserted country areas, where farmers and aristocrats have recently lost their livelihoods.

Cheever was quite fond of aptronyms, and we can learn something of his intent for the character of Mrs Garrison by looking at the meaning of her surname:

Garrison (various spellings) (from the French garnison, itself from the verb garnir, “to equip”) is the collective term for a body of troops stationed in a particular location, originally to guard it, but now often simply using it as a home base. The garrison is usually in a city, town, fort, castle or similar. “Garrison town” is a common expression for any town that has a military base nearby.


This supports the idea that when Nils Lund sees Mrs Garrison he sees the upper-class in general. He is angry that this impending war is something designed and started by men in their ivory towers, sending young men from the lower classes to the fields en masse to be killed. When Nils is stricken by self-consciousness, he seems to limp. When this story was published, the war had just ended and the sight of a limping man would have been unusually common.

The light that Jim wants to offer Agnes and Carlotta in the final paragraph is a symbol of ‘hope’, since the ‘diminutives, timidity, and vagueness’ are obviously faux reassurances to each other.


The Common Day was published in the New Yorker Aug. 2, 1947 (pp. 19-24).

This is the second short story in the vintage collection of short stories by John Cheever.


The TV series Downton Abbey is also (partly) about class, and how lives were so different depending on what class you had been born into. Downton Abbey, though, can deal with class with moralistic overtone; the servants who the audience is encouraged to empathise with are the servants who ‘know their place’ and toe the line. The ‘evil’ characters are often the ones who try to bust out of their restrictions. They suffer dire consequences.

In The Common Day, the gardener is like one of the ‘evil servants’ on Downton Abbey in that he doesn’t fully accept his station in life. He can see straight through the injustice of class, and this leads to his discontent, and possibly to his downfall. But this is a much more subdued story. There are no immediate and dire consequences for Nils.

The anti-war song Where Have All The Flowers Gone? wasn’t written (by Pete Seeger) until 1955, but like Nils Lund may be doing, Seeger uses the word ‘flower’ as a symbol for all the young men who are sent off to war and killed, or for all the beautiful things that disappear during wartime.


Have you ever seen someone in an inferior position explode with frustration at a boss or someone in authority?

What would you like to have said to someone in authority one time when you were frustrated? What do you think the consequences might have been?

Rich Americans had a much more comfortable time in the 1950s, as depicted in the illustration of a picnic at a country house below.

1954 illustration “Gulf Coast Shrimp Supper” from series ” Home life in America”.

I Am Waiting by Christopher Isherwood

What might the ‘inverse of a superhero story’ look like? What if superpowers are given to ordinary men who do nothing with them? You may know Christopher Isherwood’s name from the film A Single Man or Christopher and His Kind. I Am Waiting is one of two short stories Isherwood had published in The New Yorker. This one is very much of its era, and must have been written near the time it was published, in 1939 when Isherwood was in his mid-thirties. There are at least two ways of reading this short story: By imagining we are right there with Americans in 1939, or with the benefit of hindsight as readers of the 21st century.


It is October 17, 1939. A man in his late middle age reflects on his very ordinary life. But he does have one strange ability: He can jump forward in time. After doing this several times he jumps forward to 1944, where he finds a newspaper. Eagerly wanting to know how the war has panned out, he searches the newspaper for relevant information, but finds only information about chicken breeding.


Is Connecticut the default American city where we are to imagine the suburbs — a coathanger of normalcy where strange and disturbing things happen behind closed doors? I have never been to America, but that is my outsider’s view of Connecticut as a fictional setting. This is an upper-middle class household, with a drawing room, tennis court, garden and a maid. These are the sorts of families who holiday at the Cape.

See also: Books set in Connecticut, a Goodreads list. My idea of Connecticut probably derives from the Stepford Wives story.

In this particular story, the setting is even more vital to the plot than the setting, which could have taken place in any American suburb. If you go to a site such as History Orb, you can see exactly what was happening in history in any given month. When this story was published Poland had just been invaded by Germany. Americans — like anyone — would have been anxious to know how the war was going to pan out.

My mind shouted questions: “Had the United States jumped into the war? Had there been a revolution? What is happening in Europe? In China? In the Near East?”


The incidents which I am about to describe are true, but I can offer you no proof—at leat not for the next five years.

When a story opens with a first person narrator describing him or herself, the reader’s radar is up: Is this narrator reliable? How well does this narrator know himself? Even if he knows himself, why is he spinning this version of himself for the reader? In this case, though, we are not dealing with an unreliable narrator — this man has reached an age where he has a realistic handle on his own station in life. This story is one of regret rather than boast — perhaps a kind of ‘setting the record straight’ as he heads towards the grave.

We’re more sure of the veracity of his character description because Isherwood drops supporting details into the text. For example, we are told that the narrator keeps himself almost invisible, and this is backed up by the following detail (which is not to say that unreliable narrators can’t be reliably unreliable, but still):

The others had all driven into town to go to a movie, so I could enjoy the luxury of drawing my armchair into the very middle of the hearthrug, facing and monopolizing the fire.


Wilfred — 67 years old, bachelor, lives in a house owned by his more successful lawyer brother. A self-described semi-educated bore (though he reads Browning) who keeps to himself and pays his way in life with a small inherited income. This is significant because the narrator has even failed to make his mark in life by contributing something to the world in the form of work. His sister-in-law suggests he even wears one of her aprons to search for old photographs in the attic; Wilfred is obviously not considered an alpha male character.

Wilfred’s younger brother — serves as a contrast to the narrator as a ‘successful and energetic lawyer’. His three male sons only add to his aura of social success. But this is not a Cain and Abel archetype; most sibling relationships in real life are less dramatic than that:

From boyhood I have admired, though somewhat grudgingly, the extreme lucidity of my brother’s intelligence. Now, as I stood there baffled, I asked myself what would he, who was never at a loss, have done in my place.

Mabel — the younger brother’s wife, very kind to her brother-in-law ‘on the whole, as long as I am careful to be tidy and not unnecessarily visible’.

Three nephews — sons of the lawyer and Mabel. All grown with wives of their own; all have moved out of the natal home. These nephews are mentioned as a way of populating the story with a believable family network.


In late middle age we sometimes realise our extraordinary talents may come to nothing much after all.

Maria Nikolajeva writes of children’s literature specifically when she describes the general function of time travel in fiction, but if we can make any generalisations about the time travel in general fiction, the ability to travel through time is generally for some higher purpose:

Today we read that the whole purpose of time travel is to change history, either the private history of the character, as in Playing Beatie Bow (1980) by the Australian author Ruth Park, or The Root Cellar (1981) by Canadian Janet Lunn, or the history of the world, like A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) by Madeleine L’Engle. In this book the character changes the past so that the third world war does not break out in his own time. Time Travelers are no longer passive observers, but must take upon themselves responsibility for their actions in the past.

Children’s Literature Comes Of Age by Maria Nikolajeva

However, in Isherwood’s short story, the ability to time travel is remarkable, but because the man who has this ability is so very unremarkable, nothing comes of it. What if he had learned something about historical events? What could a retired bachelor living in his brother’s house in Connecticut really do about any of it? The war was so much bigger than one man, let alone this particular man.

Anyone who has seen/read A Single Man (starring Colin Firth) or Christopher And His Kind (the biography of Christopher Isherwood) may find it hard to put aside the knowledge that Isherwood was a gay icon. Though Isherwood embraced his sexuality, he lived at a time when many gay people could not. Is the bachelor of this story gay? If so, he has spent his entire life failing to live up to his potential. The following is from the initial paragraph of the story and otherwise feels apropos of nothing:

I have never married and I cannot truthfully say that I have ever been loved, though half a dozen people are, perhaps, mildly fond of me.

Reading from a modern perspective, if only men such as this narrator could have time traveled forward another few generations, their lives would have been much different. The benefit of modern hindsight aside, this is a story about a failed superhero. What if the powers of Superman had been gifted to a repressed character and come to nothing at all? How many Supermen are out there, hiding almost invisibly in suburban rooms?

See also: Time Travel In Fiction

The unknown future is scary, but there is absolutely nothing to do but wait and see.

Though this character is facing the challenges of old age, even the young are now faced with thoughts about their own mortality. In wartime, every age shares this in common.

And now here I am, waiting for whatever may come next. Sometimes I feel frightened, but in general I managed to regard the whole business quite philosophically. I am well aware that the next adventure—if there ever is another—may  be my last…let the moment call for me when it will—at whatever time, in whatever place. I shall be ready.


Realistic Character Memory Of Dates

When a first person narrator remembers a date, it helps to make that date somewhat significant. People don’t tend to naturally remember dates of events unless they happen on a holiday or anniversary:

On the evening of Friday, January 6th, of this year — I can be exact, for this was the day after the anniversary of my brother’s marriage—I was sitting in the drawing room of our house…

Two brothers: One successful, one a failure

This character ensemble is utilised to highlight the sad life of the narrator. One brother is heterosexual and therefore privileged, with a great job and three sons (the epitome of familial success), contrasted against the bachelor younger brother who is without valued achievements.


The drawing room clock is supported by a pair of china figurines. When Annie breaks the china boy’s  left hand off at the wrist, this imagery would be familiar to those who saw men come back from the first world war with amputated limbs and disturbing disfigurements. The narrator refers to the broken figurine as ‘the mutilated boy’. In 1939, American readers would have been worried that this scenario would happen again, and no one could predict the extent of human damage.

When Wilfred stumbles upon a newspaper, it is significant that he has stumbled upon The Cage Bird Fancier. Wilfred himself is, at the time, locked in an attic in a house in the suburbs, in a country which may or may not go to war. Much like a caged bird, in fact.

The Rule Of Three

The first time travel incident is astonishing; the second sets up a pattern; the third forms the meat of the story. This is such a commonly used narrative technique that it takes a brave writer to fiddle with it. Each incident is accompanied by an increasing amount of detail.

Detail To Accompany The Magical Realism

Fantasy lovers can avoid this term, preferring simple ‘fantasy’ to describe this kind of story — a realistic story with a little bit of impossible stuff going on. To make the concept of time travel believable within the world of the story, Isherwood has included a significant amount of detail: The characters, how they are related to each other, the snippets of dialogue from the tennis court, the weather. The book he is reading, where he is sitting in his chair. The direction he moves in (‘toward the bookcase’). A lot of this detail exists to provide verisimilitude. The author also relies upon the fact that at times of great stress or inner turmoil, people tend to remember details we may not otherwise:

I read on and on, learning all manner of highly relevant and unfruitful fact…These tiresome details are imprinted upon my memory forever.

Comic Irony

Chickens are great for this purpose, and are used here to good effect. Though the whole world is entering a war, the newspaper reports on chicken breeding. Irony is a meaningful gap between expectation and outcome. Once understanding that this ordinary man has an extraordinary gift, we expect something to come of it, but nothing does. This is a form of ‘presentation irony’, and also may be considered ‘genre subversion’, since superheroes tend to save the world from disaster.


First published October 21, 1939 in The New Yorker

Available today in The New Yorker’s archive viewer (with a pay wall)

I Am Waiting Screenshot

Collected in Short Stories From The New Yorker, published 1940



A commenter at The Mookse and the Gripes blog suggests a thematic comparison to I Am Waiting:

Dying Inside
Silverberg 1972 - Dying Inside
published 1972



The perfect contrast is against Superman, which was new and popular at this exact time in American history. Everyone was wishing some superhero could swoop down from on high and save the world:

Superman is a fictional superhero appearing in American comic books published by DC Comics. Superman is widely considered an American cultural icon. The Superman character was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, high school students living in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1933; the character was sold to Detective Comics, Inc. (later DC Comics) in 1938.


If you discovered you had a secret superpower, what might that be?

And given your life circumstances, what would you — in reality — be able to accomplish with it?

What would a duller, less successful version of yourself look like? And what if that character had the superpower instead of you?

Them Old Cowboy Songs by Annie Proulx

In the short story “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx, a young white couple marry and settle in a log cabin near or in Southern Wyoming. Needing to buy their own livestock, the young man sets off to do some well-paid cowboy work, leaving his pregnant wife alone.

The young wife goes into labour far earlier than expected, gives birth to a stillborn child after four days and dies alone in the cabin. Likewise, Archie dies on the job herding cows.

In contrast to this tragic plot we have a subplot which is tragic in its own way but contains humour to offset the overall tragedy: In the home town of the young wife lives a more beautiful young woman named Queeda, daughter of the station master. Harp Daft uses the telescope to spy on her step-mother, eventually writing a love letter that suggests to everyone that not only is he in love with the step-mother, but has offered enough information (gleaned from the telescope) to suggest that all sorts of adulterous acts have been going on. Though Daft has killed himself after writing the love letter, Mrs Dorgan’s life is feared to be effectively over too, as it turns out she was ‘rescued’ from a whore house by Mr Dorgan. Queeda may suffer the same fate, the two being close. So Mrs Dorgan points out that her beauty and Queeda’s beauty is an asset to his prestige and political aspirations, and for now she is allowed to stay.


‘Those old cowboys songs’ are like ‘those old first world war poems’ in that the life of the pioneer and cowboy is romanticised.

Examples of such songs are offered in the text:

and so on.

This sort of music, the great-grandmother of modern country, features lyrics about disturbing situations but the people in these narratives always manage to rise above their circumstance.

We like to remember Wild West pioneers as mythic heroes, who endured hardships but who nonetheless survived. As Proulx says in her preface, this simply wasn’t the case; many (if not most) died before they had time to produce off-spring. In other cases, entire families died at once, leaving no descendents. Those are not the direct ancestors of those of us living today, so we tend to forget all about them.

Music is important to Archie, who has a fine ear and can learn songs after hearing them only once, or make up new songs as easily as conversing. Indeed, Archie McLaverty is taught to play piano on a piece of wood painted with black and white keys. This is a powerful image partly because learning to play piano this way would be all but impossible — ‘the illusion of music where none actually exists’. This describes the mythology itself. The ‘black and whiteness’ of the plank of wood could also stand in for the ‘black and white’ way in which we tend to think of goodies and baddies of the Wild West, or divide into ‘heroes’ and ‘victims’ the settler subgroup.

This must have been a thing, because the same image is used in The Homesman, starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones.


Set in 1885 in the American Wild West.

There are three mountain ranges in the United States that go by the name ‘Sierra Madre’, but going by Annie Proulx’s earlier collection ‘Wyoming Stories’, I’m guessing this story takes place near the Sierra Madre Range of south-central Wyoming and north-central Colorado. (Turns out this book is subtitled ‘Wyoming Stories 3’.)

Annie Proulx is particularly adept at conveying mood and atmosphere of the setting/season with a few strokes of colour:

Some mornings the wind stirred the snow into a scrim that bleached the mountains and made opaline dawn skies. Once the sun below the horizon threw savage red onto the bottom of the cloud that hung over Barrel Mountain and Archie glanced up, saw Rose in the doorway burning an unearthly color in the lurid glow.

July was hot, the air vibrating, the dry land like a scraped sheep hoof. The sun drew the color from everything and the Little Weed trickled through dull stones.


What stands out to a modern Western reader is how young the protagonists of this story are, given the skill set needed by pioneers in the late 1800s.

Archie McLaverty (17) — born to Irish parents who died when he was young. Raised by a woman whose own son didn’t like Archie or accept him as a brother. Inherited 100 dollars from his foster mother and bought land for a house because he was too young to get it given to him as a settler. His youthfulness is described by the way his mouth looks ‘etched onto’ his face; his skin has not yet had time to weather into cowboy leather. Red cheeks, auburn hair. It’s significant that Archie had Irish parents because it accounts for how he would know the lyrics to so many songs.

Rose McLaverty (nee Mealor) (14 or 15) — ‘Rose was not pretty, but warmhearted and quick to laugh. She had grown up at the Jackrabbit stage station, the daughter of kettle-bellied Sundown Mealor, who dreamed of plunging steeds but because of his bottle habit drove a freight wagon…Rose’s mother was grey with some wasting disease that kept her to her bed, sinking slowly out of life.’ Note the situation of Rose’s parents: Just like today, people died slowly of disease, or slowly from lifetime addictions, failing to fulfil their own modest dreams.

Tom Adler — More liked by Rose than by Archie. He used to travel the seas, and has one ear pierced. The ring tells people that he has been east round Cape Horn. Has a rich collection of stories about storms, whales, icebergs etc. Is now an old prospector, wanting safe harbour in his old age.

Tom’s Cat Gold Dust — Tom’s cat must be first billed as a character in this story. Is interested in catching the weasel that moved in as soon as Archie and Rose cut wood and stacked it for winter. Along with the weasel, Tom recognises at the end of the story that animals do quite well in the wild — the cat has survived by gradually turning more and more feral. When he finally sees Gold Dust, her fur is sleek, and she refuses the bacon he offers her.

Mrs Peck — took Archie in when he was orphaned at 14

Bunk Peck — Mrs Peck’s son, jealous of Archie, ungenerous when the will is settled. (Note the wonderfully brusque name, which matches his personality.)

Robert F. Dorgan — ‘The stationmaster was the politically minded Robert F. Dorgon, affable and jowly, yearning to be appointed to a position of importance and seeing the station as a brief stop not only for freight wagons but for himself.’

Flora Dorgan — ‘[Robert’s] second wife, Flora, stepmother to his daughter, Queeda, went to Denver every winter with Queeda, and they became authorities on fashion and style.’ Flora looks down on Rose and Rose’s family.

Queeda Dorgan — Because she gets along so well with Flora and is always dressed in finery, Rose both ‘admires and despises’ Queeda Dorgan. Queeda is set up as a contrast character for Rose; Rose is plain, Queeda is elegantly dressed. ‘But it was hard, keeping clean. Queeda Dorgan, for example, had little to do at the station but primp an wash and flounce, but Rose, in her cabin, lifted heavy-kettles, split kindling, baked bread, scrubbed pots and hacked the stone-filled ground for a garden, hauled water when Archie was not there.’ Unlike Rose, Queeda lives. But her life is as precarious as anyone else’s we learn, right at the end, when the step-mother is almost turfed out.

Harp Daft — an old bachelor, the telegraph key operator who works with Robert Dorgan at the station. Very unpleasant to look at. From the window of the station he spies on Mrs Dorgan with a telescope. He says he uses it to seek out constellations.

Sink Gartrell — Sink is a cowpoke Archie works with who gives Archie advice about steering clear of the guy in charge and how to fall off a horse without injuring yourself too much. Notice the number of Germanic, hard-sounding names, names which match the land. Sink and Archie die together in the big blizzard.


First, a word on the message. There is a strong message in this story, evident from the get-go: The Wild West was not the heroic but comfortingly cosy setting of the stories that survive. But of course, in the hands of this master writer, there is a lot more to the message; the themes expand upon the message.

If you want to send a message, try Western Union.

Samuel Goldwyn

Our Fear And Sense Of Risk Is So Often Misplaced

Take note of the way the first three characters die, setting up a tragicomic pattern:

Archie’s mother — cholera (an unsurprising death to begin with)

Archie’s father — overdosing on medicine thought to prevent cholera (a comically ironic death)

Mrs Peck — caught in a grass conflagration started by herself while singeing chickens (ironic because you wouldn’t expect to die in a grass fire, let alone one started by yourself, let alone while carrying out such a mundane task)

We also hear of an early settler who died of hunger (but who had the river named after him), a man named Mr Town who got killed with his well caved in and him in it. Rose’s parents move to Omaha hoping to help Mrs Mealor’s health, thereby failing to even be buried in the station graveyard. They are forgotten forever. Archie and his friend of pneumonia during a blizzard. The pervert with the telescope kills himself by drinking lye. None of these deaths involve the folkloric rivalry between whites and Indians.

Historical Setting

By 1885, Native Americans were starting to pose less of a threat to white settlers, because their numbers had been greatly reduced in massacres carried out mid-century. Life itself presented dangers of its own though, as made use of in this story, the threat of Indian violence was still in the air. Mrs Buck Roy, the new freighter’s wife, was terrified of Indians. The simple act of lone child birthing was more likely to kill a white woman than a Ute, but it was these unseen warriors who were at the root of most fears. When Archie asks his closest neighbour to check in on Rose every so often in his absence, is he really worried about the possibility that his young wife might haemorrhage during childbirth and die alone, or is he worried that an Indian may take her if there is no obvious man of the house?

Contemporary Analogue

What is the modern equivalent of misplaced fear? We are still scared of what we cannot see. Vaccines are thought by many to carry higher risks than the diseases they prevent. Many are more afraid of plane travel than of driving a motorcar down a highway, despite the fact that highway driving is far more risky. Women are told to avoid parks alone even though, for women in general, the most dangerous place is in her own home, with a man who has at some stage told her he loves her.

By painting parks/cities/the world as a Wild West that only a fool would traverse unguarded, we’re being fed a distracting lie that impinges on our rights to use public space equally.

That’s a quotation from the Australian article hyperlinked above, and it’s no coincidence that the Wild West is used as a simile here; the myth of the pioneer in the American Wild West (and Australia has its own version) is still powerful today. Modern society — especially for women — still has its own Wild West; parks, elevators, carpark basements, deserted woodland, night-times in general.

Survival So Often Comes Down To Luck

Archie tries to send a letter to his wife, though he doesn’t yet know she has died, only to find he can’t afford the postage. The pieces of his letter are compared to playing cards:

Archie, who had only one cent, tore up his letter and threw the pieces in the street. The wind dealt them to the prairie, its chill promising a tight-clenched winter.

Some lived and some died and that’s how it was.



Every object mentioned/described at the beginning of the story turns out to have some gory significance before the end:

  • The door step stone which ends up being used for a grave stone
  • The note on the table that ends up being mistaken for a possible confession.

Some stories — and many modern movies, especially — open with a flash-forward to an action scene in order to capture the audience’s attention. Annie Proulx does not use that exact technique here; instead we have (what looks like) a quotation, but is probably the author’s own sage observation:

There is a belief that pioneers come into the country, home-steaded, lived tough, raised a shoeless brood and founded ranch dynasties. Some did. But many more had short runs and were quickly forgotten.

This opening lets the reader know from the outset that this story is about one of the forgotten families. Bad things are going to happen here, and the effect is the same as if we’d been thrown straight into a dangerous scene. Pre-WW2, Western stories were all about the glory and the expansion of America. This changed after WW2, and now we really only see anti-Westerns. (Annie Proulx is one of the stand-out examples.)

The foreshadowing continues, of course, not only in the first paragraph with more mention of death, but later on, for example with the moths:

At the evening meal, their faces lit by the yellow shine of the cool oil lamp whose light threw wild shadows on the ceiling, their world seemed in order until moths flew at the lamp and finally thrashed themselves to sticky death on the plates.

[Rose] seemed unaware that she lived in a time when love killed women.

Another day she had gathered two quarts of wild strawberries, her fingers stained deep red that would not wash away.

By afternoon the backache was an encircling python and she could do nothing but pant and whimper, the steady rattle of rain dampening her moaning call for succor.

Happiness Juxtaposed With Tragedy

Annie Proulx is by now well-known for foreshadowing horrible scenes with pleasant ones. Like fans of horror films can never relax when a family sings happily in the car while off on holiday, fans of Proulx know that happy scenes won’t end well:

From The Guardian Review:

‘There is no happiness,’ Proulx writes, ‘like that of a young couple in a little house they have built themselves in a place of beauty and solitude.’ Few American writers are as good as evoking that idea as she is, and hardly any can watch it all unspool with quite her sense of timing. Proulx is like Hawthorne in that respect: innocence never persists more than a paragraph, hope never makes it through a story. Not long after Rose discovers she is expecting their baby, Archie takes a job as a cowboy upstate, for a year. But the job goes bad, and so does the baby, and so does Rose, and soon enough the little home is broken up by a couple of winters and returned to scrub.

From the NYT:

In Annie Proulx’s new story collection, a young rancher about to build a cabin on his claim in the late-19th-century Wyoming wilderness walks the perimeter of his 80 acres singing old cowboy songs. This ritual marking of his place takes him all day, and in the dusk he returns, his voice a raspy whisper. The careful observation of such a ceremony would seem to suggest that time might shed its blessings on the rancher and his wife, that they might enjoy peace and ease here and the grace of days.

Who are we kidding? This is Annie Proulx.

In perhaps the greatest juxtaposition, the silver spoon heirloom given to Rose as a wedding present is the tool she uses to dig the shallow grave of the dead infant that has killed her into the bargain.

What about those of us who write without the burden of reputation? This is somewhat of a freedom, but bear in mind that reader expectation has nevertheless been set up by the great writers who came before us. The modern reader expects juxtaposition. Unless the cover looks something like this, we know that happiness in the Wild West will be short-lived:

Wild West Romance Novel Cover not similar to them old cowboy songs

For more on juxtaposition see Making Use of Juxtaposition In Writing.

The Subplot Character As Contrast To The Hero

If Archie is the male star of the story, his subplot counterparts are Tom the retired pirate and Sink Gartrell, the cowpoke with whom he dies. Tom is different from Archie in that he has led a full, action-filled life. Like Tom, he knows many songs, but he is now enjoying the autumn years Archie will never see. Sink Gartrell has chosen a different path for himself, vowing never to get stuck with a woman (though in cruder terms). Despite his wish to remain free, he too dies in a hut. Perhaps if he had gotten married he would have lived longer after all.

If Rose is the female star of the story, her subplot counterparts are Mrs and Queeda Dorgan. In fiction, when female characters are set up in opposition to one another it’s not uncommon for them to differ in beauty or finery. (It goes way back — think of the likes of Cinderella.) Rose can see that despite the difference in hardship and finery, these women are not so different from herself. The reader is given extra information at the end of the story about Mrs Dorgan’s background and about Queeda’s precarious reliance upon her father, underscoring the similarities between the women, who are all in danger of being abandoned by the men in their lives.


Anyone who has delved into The Shipping News knows that Annie Proulx has a certain, unusual sentence structure she deploys for rendering dialogue. At first glance I thought that what she is rendering here is an approximation of American social dialect of the late 1880s. Then I remembered The Shipping News, set not in America but in Canada; not in the 1800s but in the late 20th Century, and I realised that what she does isn’t exactly a regional dialect, or a social one, but something different again.

What does she do, exactly, when rendering dialogue?

There’s a certain amount of phonetic spelling, as well as regional dialect: ‘Twict’ is Southern for ‘twice’. Non-standard syntax, comma-spliced sentence:

“If I can git loose I will. But this is a real good job, good money, fifty-five a month, almost twict what Bunk Peck pays and I’m goin a save ever nickel.”

People repeat themselves. Proulx is not afraid of having characters repeat themselves likewise:

“And that’s not countin what I maybe can pick up in wolf bounties. Possible another hunderd. Enough to git us started. I’m thinkin horses, raise horses. Folks always need horses. I’ll quit this feller’s ranch after a year an git back here.”

Proulx tends to leave out ‘if’:

“I’m ridin to talk with Bunk in a few days, see can I get hired on again.”

Also frequently omitted is the beginning of a sentence, here ‘I’ll’. I wonder if this is to avoid the idea of individualism, and to convey that these stories are universal, not specific to certain characters, but characters standing in for communities.


This is the third story of Proulx’s 2008 collection Fine Just The Way It Is.


The story is divided into 3 sections of uneven length:

Archie and Rose, 1885 – about Archie and Rose getting married, a bit of backstory on them both, and Archie’s decision to go cowboying in order to earn some good money for when the baby comes.

Archie and Sink – A few paragraphs about Archie’s job as a cowhand.

Rose and the Coyotes – Rose gives birth to the baby. She manages to bury the baby beside the river. Coyotes come and eat the carcass outside. Archie catches pneumonia and dies with one of the other cowpunchers in a shack during a 12 day snow blizzard. He never finds out that his wife and baby are already dead.

The narrator is unseen and has his own interesting vocabulary.


Proulx’s most famous cowboy story is of course “Brokeback Mountain“. “Brokeback Mountain” covers a longer period of time in the life of two men, demonstrating the writer’s ability to cover vast lengths of time and complex emotional landscapes within the confines of a short story.


Annie Proulx really knows the landscape of Wyoming and is able to convey a realistic sense of the era. What is the landscape you know best? Is there a certain regional dialect associated with this area? What aspects of this landscape make it different from others similar? Are you able to write about eras that others can’t, either because you’ve been around longer than most or because of a long-time personal interest? If there are human stories around this region that haven’t been told, what form would they likely take?