55 Miles To The Gas Pump by Annie Proulx

“55 Miles To The Gas Pump” by Annie Proulx is a concise retelling of “Bluebeard in a remote, rural American setting.

Angela Carter also wrote a feminist re-visioning of Bluebeard in “The Bloody Chamber“. Proulx’s re-visioning is not feminist but grimly humorous.

55 Miles To The Gas Pump

The opening paragraph describes Rancher Croom in one long sentence, repeating his name as if this is an epic poem. Because this is just two paragraphs and one short one to finish, Proulx can get away with sentence fragments and present tense.

NARRATION IN 55 MILES TO THE GAS PUMP

In “55 Miles To The Gas Pump'”, on Mrs Croom’s reviling discovery in the attic of her husband’s “paramours,” whose corpses she recognizes “from their photographs in the paper. MISSING WOMAN,” the narrator dryly concludes: “When you live a long way out you make your own fun.” Since Annie Proulx herself live[d] on a rather secluded ranch in deep Wyoming, this grotesque and cynical intrusion from the narrator may be read as a metadiegetic* comment from the implied author, ironically referring to the playful quality of her writing and to her art of recycling via the short story form.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literatureedited by Stéphanie Durrans

*If you’re wondering what the holy hell ‘metadiegetic’ means, I wrote a post about that. Believe it or not, it’s a useful and necessary concept.

STORY STRUCTURE OF 55 MILES TO THE GAS PUMP

According to author and senior lecturer of creative writing at Kingston University James Miller, “a short story is almost always a distillation of the elements we find in a novel: it intensifies character, location and event; it compresses time and narrative arc.”

Blarb

This is more vignette than story. A vignette with a punch line. At least, that’s how it feels at first glance. But brief as it is, does this ‘vignette’ actually have a full story structure? Sure enough, it does.

WEAKNESS/NEED

This is a story about Mrs Croom. Her weakness is that she has a husband who is up to things she knows nothing about. Presumably she is able to turn a blind eye, somewhat. Annie Proulx doesn’t go into any of this — Mrs Croom’s weaknesses are assumed. We can only imagine what sort of life a woman must lead if she sort-of-kind-of knows her husband is the local mass murderer. Good at burying her head in the sand, I’d say.

DESIRE

After her husband flings himself to his death over a cliff and into the surf below, Mrs Croom ‘whets to her desire’ to know what’s behind the padlocked doors in her own house.

OPPONENT

Mr Croom, her husband, the mass murderer

PLAN

She will cut a hole in the attic with a saw, because she can’t get through the padlocks. When this doesn’t do the job she changes to a chisel and hammer.

Note that even in the most simple of stories, the initial plan usually doesn’t work. I believe this is for reasons of verisimilitude. While plans sometimes do work first time in real life, when they work without trouble in narrative, the audience feels it’s a little too convenient.

BATTLE

Rather than a battle this story gives us the aftermath of a battle, with enough detail for us to fill in the gaps. An implied battle scene.

SELF-REVELATION

Sure enough, Mrs Croom has been exactly right about her husband all along. The detail of one of the women with remnants of blue paint on her — the same blue paint used on the shutters years ago — highlights just how close to home and domesticity these gruesome acts are. Mrs Croom has lived here, in this house, with those blue shutters, and now she cannot extricate herself from the crimes.

I wonder if the colour blue is an allusion to Bluebeard.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Rather than outrage, fainting or paralysing fear, Mrs Croom shows herself to be complicit, telling herself that her husband’s crimes are somewhat understandable given where they live and how there’s nothing much to do anyway. This explains the title of the story — the distance to the nearest gas station is indicative of how remote they are from civilisation (and also from civilised behaviour).

So although there was a revelation, the New Equilibrium phase of this short story tells us there was no real character arc. This is in line with Proulx’s grim view of humanity, shared by writers such as Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), who break story convention to remind us that in fact people rarely change. And if they do, not easily.

Charles Perrault’s Fairytale Morals: Rewritten For A Modern Audience

When Charles Perrault wrote down the fairytales he’d collected from the wider culture, he ended each one with a summary which summed up the moral. In many cases, his take on the moral was pretty far from earlier tellings. Perrault wrote in a tongue-in-cheek manner — that much is clear. But as with any kind of humour, his basic beliefs about life and humanity shone through. Perrault was a man of his time. He joked about misogyny, but I believe he meant every word.

Sleeping Beauty Angela Carter

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY IN THE WOOD

When choosing a life partner, look carefully at his family.

See also: Sleeping Beauty And Cannibalism

LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD

If you think you might assault someone, stay out of the fucking woods.

See also: The Evolution Of Little Red Riding Hood

BLUEBEARD

Ladies, trust your instincts. If you think that old man next door is creepy, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. Also, if your new husband treats you like a child and starts playing mind games with you, get out of there before the shit really hits the fan.

See also: Bluebeard by Charles Perrault, a breakdown of the story structure

 

THE FOOLISH WISHES

When arguing with the most important person in your life, be careful what you say. Words once uttered can affect your relationship forever.

 

THE FAIRIES

When women are judged mainly on their looks, it’s not really all that surprising if the most beautiful daughter in a household is ostricised by her embittered female relatives. Nor is it surprising that these women, after a lifetime of discrimination, have become embittered.

It doesn’t matter if pearls and rubies fall out of your mouth; as long as you a beautiful your prince will find you. You don’t need to make any special sort of exertion; just leave home and go wandering through the woods.

 

HOP O’ MY THUMB

If your own parents are so nasty that they’ll take you and your siblings into the woods and leave you there to die in a time of famine, you don’t actually owe them anything after that. Make like a Scientologist and cut your ties.

 

DONKEY-SKIN

If your father wants to ‘marry’ you, get the fuck out of there and everything will eventually be okay.

 

RICKY WITH THE TUFT

Although men need women to be beautiful (for ‘evolutionary reasons’ or whatever bullshit they feed you these days), women are not to expect their male partners to be equally good-looking. If you’re a woman, your beau can be the ugliest fucking bastard in the world, but as long as you really really love him, you’ll eventually realise, with no magic whatsoever, everything about him is hunky dory. In other words, women have to conform to the Beauty Standard, but men do not.

The history of fairy-tale selection and adaptation has given far more prominence to male beasts who are afflicted with monstrosity, and then has held up the promise of redemption through love for them: the beast himself from ‘Beauty and the Beast’, who is restored to his human shape, or ‘Riquet a la houppe’ (Ricky with the Tuft’), in one of Perrault’s stories, who teaches the giddy heroine to love him for his mind, in spite of his looks. In more recent interpretations, such as the film of The Phantom of the Opera, or Mask, and The Elephant Man (directed early in his career by the aficionado of the macabre, David Lynch), the ‘monster’ solicits sympathy in the midst of exciting distress, horror and alarm.

[…]

A crucial distinction  between Renaissance grotesque and [the] Counter-Enlightenment derivative can be made in terms of the response. […] The grotesque style has undergone a change and expanded its reach. The treatment of monsters in fairytales, first fora n adult readership in the late seventeeth century, and progressively for a young audience thereafter, has contributed decisively to this shift in taste. The anti-heroes of popular stories, like the ugly suitor in Charles Perrault’s fairy tale of 1697 (Ricky With The Tuft), of the hissing Great Green Worm in marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s tale of that name, offer a vision of the monstrous redeemed by the grotesque. Fantasy beasts may ape human beings in order to mock them, but representations stage their presence in order to think with them, through them, about what it means to be human,

— Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

CINDERELLA; OR THE LITTLE GLASS SLIPPER

You’re more marriageable if you’re both charming and beautiful. Even better if you’re rich, but two out of three will suffice. You may even attract a prince. But do you really want a husband who’s chosen you for your beauty, your lifelong acculturation as a compliant doormat, and your smaller than average feet?

See also: The History And Influence Of Cinderella

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

“The Bloody Chamber” is a feminist-leftie re-visioning of Bluebeard, written in the gothic tradition, set in a French castle with clear-cut goodies and baddies.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Adult Tales

 

 

The title story of The Bloody Chamber, first published in 1979, was directly inspired by Charles Perrault’s fairy tales of 1697: his “Barbebleue” (Bluebeard) shapes Angela Carter’s retelling, as she lingers voluptuously on its sexual inferences, and springs a happy surprise in a masterly comic twist on the traditional happy ending. Within a spirited exposé of marriage as sadistic ritual, she shapes a bright parable of maternal love.

Marina Warner

 

The tale of Bluebeard’s Wife–the story of a young woman who discovers that her mysterious blue-bearded husband has murdered his former spouses–no longer squares with what most parents consider good bedtime reading for their children. But the story has remained alive for adults, allowing it to lead a rich subterranean existence in novels ranging from Jane Eyre to Lolita and in films as diverse as Hitchcock’s Notorious and Jane Campion’s The Piano.

— description of a different book, Secrets Beyond the Door : The Story of Bluebeard and His Wives

The descriptions of setting are evocative and eerie; the reader knows something terrible is about to happen — it’s almost given away in the title, after all — what we don’t know is how the girl is going to escape. This is a fairytale for adults, utilising the contrivances and coincidences of the fairytale tradition to tell a story which is otherwise modern in resolution: There is no white knight in shining armour. Who is really the most likely to save a girl from harm?

In the 1970s, Angela Carter was translating Charles Perrault from French, and she compiled two volumes of fairy tales from all over the world for Virago. So there you have it: French language, fairy tale and feminist expertise in one writer, which is all evident in this story…

Continue reading “The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter”