Monday, May 13, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 20: Madeline Yale Wynne, The Little Room (#42)

Madeline Yale Wynne, "The Little Room" (1895) from American Fantastic Tales

I'd love to make that cutesy comparison here between Madeline Yale Wynne and her father, Linus Yale, founder of the Yale Locks company: see, not only was Madeline a metal-smith, but her most famous story is all about a room that only some people can get to--as if there were some sort of lock on it.

That central conceit is pretty eerie and ambiguous enough to launch a thousand theses--the room is connected with childhood innocence (children mostly find it) or femininity (positively, as Woolf's "room of one's own," since husbands seem excluded) or patriarchy (the little room as the limitations of women's role) or lost possibilities (the room is decorated with objects from the past that represent futures that never were) or, etc. Add to that eerieness--well, "queerness" in the words of the story, so you can see why people read this story as having to do with gendered roles--the fact that the two aunts who live in this house never seem bothered by the fact that they have a little room which is sometimes a china closet. Frankly, they don't even seem cognizant of that fact.

I'll come out and say it: I love that conceit. It's small-stakes but eerily unexplained. And though the opening is at first hard to get into--it's just the unmarked dialogue of recently married couple going up to visit the wife's aunts--it is full of great oral explanations, the exact kind that young married people give to each other. Check out the wife's description of her aunts:

You see, Aunt Hannah is an up-and-down New England woman. She looks just like herself; I mean, just like her character. Her joints move up and down or backward and forward in a plain square fashion. I don’t believe she ever leaned on anything in her life, or sat in an easy-chair. But Maria is different; she is rounder and softer; she hasn’t any ideas of her own; she never had any. I don’t believe she would think it right or becoming to have one that differed from Aunt Hannah’s, so what would be the use of having any?
I love that so much: the comparison between one aunt and a jointed figure (or jointed piece of furniture); and the other aunt's softness and easy going nature captured in her roundness. It's simple contrast in the end, with some of those verbal bobbles that happen when people try to explain things they understand very well: "She looks just like herself."

That said, I think this story loses some momentum and realism after the opening. Because after the opening dialogue, the POV gets a little loosey-goosey, hopping from husband to wife to explain his disappointment at being made fun of and her anxiety over the disappearing room. Then we jump forward a few years when some other people go to inspect the house (two women friends), one of whom finds a closet, while the other finds a little room, which similarly strains their friendship. OK, so the little room/closet causes strife, but with that episodic structure of this couple, then this couple, we don't really care all that much about any strife. (For comparison, check out the humanity and empathy generated by yesterday's "Mrs. Spring Fragrance" through its close observation of one couple.)

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