Sunday, February 1, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 262: Sarah Orne Jewett, In Dark New England Days (#262)

Sarah Orne Jewett, "In Dark New England Days" (1890) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

I recently wrote a story--first draft, nothing I'll share with you--where I avoided the big action scenes (not that they were all that big or full of action) and instead wrote around them. Should I show the hero getting captured by aliens? Nah, let's show the hero in a cell instead and let everyone imagine what happened. (What happened? He got captured by aliens.)

Why? Because it doesn't really matter how he gets caught; what I was really interested in was how he and his captor would get along afterwards.

And in her own way, Jewett does something very similar. Not with aliens--I'm not that lucky. But her story of two daughters dealing with two losses gives us a very particular view of the scenes that would make up this story.

We don't see the daughters dealing with their overbearing and stingy father. We see them after his funeral. We see them uncovering the treasure he hid all these years--but then we skip the robbery and jump straight to the court case against the neighbor, given the ultra New England name of Enoch Holt. And we don't see the younger daughter's curse take effect, we hear two townsfolk talk about how the Holts have a tendency to, well, lose their right hands.

Given my taste for the Gothic and horror, I tend to love these ambiguously eerie tales of Jewett: the narrow towns, the open secrets, the simmering feuds, and the great unknowable world that envelopes it all. So here, she's certainly at her ambiguous best: is there a real curse or just happenstance? Are the daughters really visited by the cobwebby ghost of their tyrannical father?

But I'm still hung-up on the structure, which seems to capture something of the themes of the story: here we have a story where two adult daughters are waiting for something to change their lives--and it never quite happens. That is, the death of the father should free them up, should enrich their lives, quite literally with all of dad's hidden gold. And instead, poof, the wealth disappears. It's a story about absence: the marriage that never happened, the wealth that was only there for a moment, the neighbors not invited to stay the night, and the empty sleeves of the Holt family members. Goddamn, she's good.

(If you wanted to, we could connect this notion of absence with the idea of patriarchal power and the nullification of women. One of the first man-woman scenes we see is one neighbor carefully crafting her response so as not to set off her husband. Though the wife is upset, she has to cover those feelings.)

I mean, look at that final scene: two friends walking home (one will stay over because the other's husband is absent), out of breath (another absence), the landscape suffused with golden light of sunset (both a presence--gold, like dear old dead dad's treasure--and the upcoming absence of sunset), and Enoch Holt making his way across the landscape with only one good hand.

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