Thursday, February 22, 2018

"A Red-Letter Day" (1948)

Story by Elizabeth Taylor not available online.

Elizabeth Taylor's story is sharply observed but dated to the extent that some of its plot points likely no longer register the same way. Tory is a young single mother on visiting day at the boarding school her son attends. She sees a maternal woman who is there to visit her multiple sons and resents her—resents, we surmise, the older woman's greater comfort with being a mother, having a successful marriage, or just in general. Tory got pregnant the first time she had sex, married the man, and is now divorced from him. Her feelings about her son Edward are not conventionally maternal. It's not even clear that she cares about him, though it's also not clear that she doesn't. Certainly she has poignant feelings for him, in an abstracted way. They are uncomfortable together and it is a long day for both of them. Most of the time Tory seems to be focused on the maternal woman, Mrs. Hay-Hardy, and dwelling on her "womb": "she looked as if she had what is often called a teeming womb," for example. The contrast is stark if obvious and Mrs. Hay-Hardy recurs throughout the story. Mostly it says inside Tory's head but occasionally we see things from Edward's view. He is 11 and, while not any more comfortable than Tory about the visit, he doesn't seem that needy either. If anything, he seems reasonably happy and adjusted to boarding school life. It's possible he will eventually need therapy or have problems as an adult, but he seems fine now, which in some ways implicitly argues she's doing OK as a mother. But I don't think that's supposed to be the point of this story. This is more along the lines of proto-feminism, underlining the limitations women are subjected to. It's plain Tory never wanted the responsibilities of a child, at least not on these terms. She hates her ex-husband and doesn't react well when Edward tries to bring him up. So she's a person with anger and resentments, and I think the way these feelings confuse her about her own motherhood is intended to be a little shocking. That's mostly what feels dated. We know better now that the life of a single mother is not an easy one, and often leads to bitterness for perfectly understandable reasons. I'm not sure we're intended to like Tory much, but I think it's easier than ever to identify with her now. I think it's even possible this story is about one very bad day—we all have them—and everything worked out fine for her. Or, anyway, as fine as possible for a woman in her time.

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

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