Saturday, September 14, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 144: F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Cut-Glass Bowl (#4)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Cut-Glass Bowl" (1920) from F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922:

Fitzgerald plays a delicate game in this story of presenting the hopes and fears of the main character, Evylyn Piper; while at the same time reserving the right to comment and critique those hopes and fears. No, that's not quite correct: the story starts out at some remove from Evylyn's emotion--here is the opening line, with its tongue so far in its cheek that it's threatening to break out the other side:
There was a rough stone age and a smooth stone age and a bronze age, and many years afterward a cut-glass age.
In fact, that first section tells us the story of Evylyn Piper's imprudent friendship with a young man and how her husband Harold finds them together; but it largely tells us that story from the POV of Evylyn's friend/frenemy. It's clear to us that when the imprudent friend praises their empathic capacities--
“Yes,” he said, “yes, my trouble’s like yours. I can see other people’s points of view too plainly.”
--we're supposed to look down to make sure that he hasn't just pulled our leg completely off. Evylyn Piper is beautiful but somewhat shallow, the kind of woman who can tell of her jilted sweet giving her a giant cut-glass bowl because it's "as hard as you are and as beautiful and as empty and as easy to see through"--and never really worry about that description.

But as the story goes on, jumping from "the cut-glass bowl makes a noise which alerts Harold to the other man in his house" to "Evylyn tries to deal with her wounded daughter and her drunk husband at a business dinner," we get a lot less snark directed at Evylyn and a lot more of her emotions. Considering that we jump almost a decade, the narrator comes right out and tells us about the cooling of her wedding and the importance of her children. So when the business dinner ends poorly--thanks to that cut-glass bowl again--and her daughter gets blood poisoning and has to lose a hand--thanks to that cut-glass bowl again again--we get much more of Evylyn's hopes and fears. And her depth, too. So, whereas I chuckled through much of the opening, I am not really amused by lines such as,
It was astonishing to think that life had once been the sum of her current love-affairs. It was now the sum of her current problems.
Which sets us up for the final section, in which the cut-glass bowl again seems to attack her, this time by holding a letter from the war department about her son. Which leads to the climax, which has a hallucinatory quality, where she finds herself trapped in the cut-glass bowl and attempting to break it. We've slowly been set up for this climax through the increasingly Evylyn-centered POV, which leaves us without much room to critique her. (It helps, meanwhile, that her actions in the second and third section have been well-intentioned if not successful; and the tragedies that befall her family are somewhat out of her hands.)

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