Thursday, November 30, 2017

"The Valiant Woman" (1947)

Story by J.F. Powers not available online.

This story by J.F. Powers is something more than an anecdote, but mostly it feels cute, focused on the relationship between a Catholic priest and his housekeeper. It proceeds from a church-approved view of priests as somewhat bumbling and inept in everyday things, implying they are distracted by their higher callings. It's a precious view of priests, especially the way it plays out in the story. The housekeeper, Mrs. Stoner, is a shrewish type in her late 30s or early 40s, who is subtly taking control of Father Firman's social life. The dynamic, of course, is the work husband and wife, two people who work together and, though they are often married to others and not having an affair, behave at work like a married couple. The dynamic between them in this story is well-known among Father Firman's community of priests and church workers. Father Nulty, who visits him on his birthday, teases him by humming "Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine." Father Firman and Mrs. Stoner have an unhealthy and unpleasant relationship, but it's played off as comical, which is why I keep coming back to the word "cute." Powers has the dynamic right, I think. They play cards at night after any visitors have left, and it's a painful ritual of passive-aggressive confrontation. On the night of the story, Mrs. Stoner wins—it seems as if she might win more often than not. Father Firman appears powerless to do anything to mitigate her ever-encroaching control. She is young enough that she could well outlive him. This could go on for the rest of his life. He is obviously miserable with it. But the tone of this story is more or less that it's funny—unfortunate, yes, perhaps even deplorable, but ultimately the stuff of laughter. I'm not convinced Powers is able to get past a certain Catholic fatalism because ultimately it seems to champion a kind of unyielding stoicism about circumstance, which I'm not sure often goes to good places, as a general rule. This is Catholicism before Vatican II so it's very old school. For the most part it feels unquestioning of precepts we are very skeptical about now. It's an interesting curiosity, but not much to it beyond that.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

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