from Fifty Great Short Stories(Milton Crane, Ed. Bantam Classics reissued 2005)
This story, originally published in The New Yorker in 1949, is a wonderful example of how every line in a short story should contribute to the story, the plot or the characterization. That’s tough to do, so don’t be discouraged if your first draft isn’t as good as Mr O’Connor’s New-Yorker-ready version! It is, however, a goal worth keeping in mind.
Man Of The House
The story’s opening is crammed with short, efficient sentences that do an amazing job of setting the scene,
“When I woke, I heard my mother coughing, below in the kitchen.”
We don’t know yet, when the story is set, but we have a setting – a home, where the main character still lives with his/her mother. The mother is up early, in the kitchen, probably fixing breakfast.
“She had been coughing for days, but I had paid no attention.”
That sounds callous, but consistent with what we discover about the narrator: that his is a ten year old boy. It also sets up a tension that carries right through to the end: what is wrong with the mother. Will she survive? Will he be paid back for his callous disregard of her? When a line like “I had paid no attention’ is offered up right a the start of the story, it makes me nervous!
The third sentence (we’re still only 24 words into the story here) is completely natural and conversational, easily rooting the story in its geographical place, painting a picture of it and, at the same time, letting us know that this was happening some time ago,
“We were living on the Old Youghal road at the time, the old hilly coaching road into East Cork.”
All that from 19 words. I love it!
The rest of this paragraph paints a picture of both the mother and the narrator that puts us firmly on their side and rooting for them both,
“The coughing sounded terrible. I dressed and went downstairs in my stocking feet, and in the clear morning light I saw her, unaware that she was being watched, collapsed into a little wickerwork armchair, hoding her side. She had made an attempt to light the fire, but it had gone against her. She looked so tired and helpless that my heart turned over with compassion. I ran to her.”
Isn’t that a great opening?
The story is mostly told in one voice — that of the 10 yr old boy — but from time to time the voice of the older version of the boy creeps in, now grown up and telling us the story, judging, explaining. In one glaring example the narrator voices an opinion that will enrage most of the women (and some of the men) reading it, when he casually opines,
“It’s a funny thing about women, how they’ll take orders from anything in trousers, even if it’s only ten.”
Not a very modern, politically-correct attitude and it is the one line that makes the story seem old-fashioned. The rest of it seems fixed in a particular time, but also pretty timeless: a small boy is struggling between childhood and responsibility; sometimes he’s good; sometimes he fails; how he feels about it all. We’ve all been 10 1. We’ve all struggled with the passage from childhood to adulthood, whether in rural Ireland or a suburb or a city.
But even that one jarring line serves an important purpose in the story. It’s not just in there because the writer wants to tell us something about his character’s attitude towards women. It tells us the age of the boy in the story, and that there is no way he should be the titular man of the house. It also tells us a thing or two about his mother in particular, (and you could argue that it talks about her only, rather than women as a whole, if the line makes you uncomfortable).
Most of the time, though, the world is presented to us through the voice of the ten year old from a particular time and place.
“In the afternoon, my mother wanted me to run out and play, but I didn’t go far. I knew if once I went a certain distance from the house, I was liable to stray into temptation. Below our house, there was a glen, the drill field of the barracks perched high above it on a chalky cliff, and below, in a deep hollow, the millpond and millstream running between wooded hills — the Rockies, the Himalayas, or the HIghlands, according to your mood. Once down there, I tended to forget the real world…”
He notices the things a ten year old boy would notice: the barracks where the soldiers live, the millpond where you could find creepy crawly things, and the hills, a setting for imagined adventures.
Plot & Suspense
The story continues to take our likable little hero away from home and into temptation. Whether he resists and whether he has to pay for his sins are the questions that kept me turning the pages faster and faster until I reached the end.
Is your writing economical or more wordy? Which point-of-view do you use most often in short stories? Are your ‘voices’ distinctive?
Tell us in the comments:
- with apologies to any younger readers out there. You’re even better placed to understand this character! ↩