Sunday, August 27, 2017

"The Misfits" (1957)

Story by Arthur Miller not available online.

In my rambling internet research on Arthur Miller's story, which in 1961 became a movie with Marilyn Monroe, I found it characterized as a novella (what I read was less than 20 printed pages), found unsubstantiated word of a 2002 novel version, and more often had to pick through information about the movie, for which Miller wrote the screenplay. I know the movie pretty well, and Miller's stage productions to some degree, but I was surprised by what I found in this short story. I'm sure this betrays my own stereotyping (is it the Clark Kent glasses Arthur Miller wore?) but it's way more outdoorsy and, um, masculinist than I expected. It focuses on a degraded mustanging operation of the three principals, all men (the most studly of them is named Gay, for what that's worth). Roslyn is a simmering presence who remains off stage. But she's on Gay's mind—Gay is her 46-year-old boyfriend who worries she might be sleeping with others, including his friends. In the movie Gay is played by Clark Gable and Roslyn by Marilyn Monroe—she is definitely on stage. (As a point of interest, The Misfits was to be the last film for both of them.) The short story details the round-up procedure used by the men, scaring wild horses with a plane diving at them and herding them to a rocky plateau where they can be picked off one by one with a pickup truck and a shrewd if cruel strategy. They get even fewer horses here than they did in the movie. It's pitiful. The horses are pathetically outmatched—and all they will bring from the rendering plant comes to about $100, divided between the three. They feel vaguely ashamed about what they're doing, but Gay keeps trying to cheer them with his motto, "Better than wages!" Yes, they all agree, it's better than wages, but they are still vaguely ashamed, even (or especially) Gay. What surprised me is how much, once into it, "The Misfits" has the structure and rhythms of a nature story. More specifically, it's on the order of a hunting story, but the hunt has been debased by the superiority of their technology and the weakness of the animals (there is a colt here that particularly breaks everyone's heart). This is much less like James Fenimore Cooper and Natty Bumppo and much more like Sarah Palin emptying automatic weapons into wolves from a helicopter. The only possible justification would be financial, and that is shown up for what it is in this story. Even in 1957, a hundred dollars split three ways was barely adequate for three days' work. In its sense of tragedy, "The Misfits" feels like something an East Coast playwright might come up with. But even that is a remarkably subtle element here. This is good stuff.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

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