Thursday, March 01, 2018

"A Spinster's Tale" (1940)

Read story by Peter Taylor online.

Peter Taylor's story commits the sin of a man writing first-person as a woman, in this case an adult woman who is remembering incidents from her early adolescence. The fact that she is a spinster—that is, enduring the tragedy of being unmarried—we know only from the title. It's not mentioned in the story. It seems to me, a man, that this is a story about a woman who is adversely affected by the boys and men she grew up around. Her brother (called "Brother"), her father, and her two uncles are all varying shades of drunkard. The formal focus of the story, in fact, is a town drunk named Speed, or "Mr. Speed," as our spinster narrator, Elizabeth, calls him. Her father and his friends call him "Old Speed." Elizabeth develops something of an obsession from her first sight of him: "I beheld Mr. Speed walking like a cripple with one foot on the curb and one in the street. And faintly I could hear him cursing the trees as he passed them, giving each a lick with his heavy walking cane." You get the sense that Mr. Speed represents something larger and more general for her. Perhaps he is the reason she never married—the reason she has decided all men are drunken beasts. She has to take the bad behavior from her family but in the conflict with Speed she is cold, harsh, and condemning. As an interpretation, that might be too easy. Taylor has said he was under some influence of Henry James at the time he wrote this story, so perhaps that accounts for the strange open-ended ambiguities. The title keeps suggesting to me that the story is some kind of explanation—not necessarily for her never marrying, but for some fundamental trait of her personality or her life. Men are brutes and to be treated that way. It seems simplistic, but there's an undeniable rage tucked away in the formally clean language. She ends it on a strange and compelling image: "... my hatred and fear of what [Mr. Speed] had stood for in my eyes has never left me. And ... not a week has passed but that he has been brought to my mind by one thing or another. It was only the other night that I dreamed I was a little girl on Church Street again ... and that there was a drunk horse in our yard."

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

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