“Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases” begins in the 1930s, when the mentally retarded boy is living with his family on a small farm by the woods. He has a brother and sister, older by two and three years respectively. They practice with their tools in the woodshed, making wood cars and boats, but the retarded boy is horrified by tools such as chisels, saws and axes, because he cannot learn how to handle them correctly. He also has difficulty in remembering the names of the tools. There are other tools in the shed, including a mallet that is too heavy to lift and a hanging ice saw that he is forbidden to touch. Sometimes the boy is beaten because his parents are afraid he will badly hurt himself; they want him to keep away from the tools. Sometimes his brother and sister tease him, sending him to the barn to fetch objects that do not exist. He is unsure about what things exist and what do not.
For this boy, better than tools are mushrooms that grow in the woods behind the barn. He enjoys their different shapes and smells and the way they feel when he touches them. But his parents do not allow him to go to the woods where the mushrooms grow.
He starts school in 1939, at the age of seven. World War II has just begun. The teacher at the one-room school is kind and helpful as the boy tries to learn to read. He can tell the letters apart, but he cannot make sense of words. During recess, he walks around by himself, apart from the other children. He does not understand why he is at school, and he remains there for only one week. After this one attempt to educate him, his parents send him away to an institution for retarded boys. At the institution, he misses the life he has known on the farm. He amuses himself by picking a spider “apart, leg by leg,” and feeding paper to the fat boy in the bed next to him, whose habit is to eat little paper balls. The retarded boy is comforted by the patterns he observes in the wallpaper. Out of the crisscrossing lines he is able to make shapes like trees.
The following spring, in 1940, he is sent home because the institution is to be used for other purposes. After he has been home for a week, he almost drowns in a brook. He is rescued by his brother and then beaten by his parents for his carelessness.
In the spring of 1945, when he is about thirteen and living again at the institution, he becomes sexually aware and learns how to masturbate. This discovery makes him happy, because he realizes that his body holds secrets that he may be able to discover. It is “the happiest spring of his life.” During this period, he is allowed to observe other boys working in the wood shop. A new teacher is kind to him, allows him “to sort pieces of wood in the lumber room,” and gives him other small tasks to perform. He is confused by the boisterousness of the other boys, but the teacher knows how to quiet things down without being abusive toward the boys. The teacher becomes the center of the boy’s world.
The boy does not get on so well with the female aides. They tell him he is in the way and cause him some anxiety with their attitudes that veer between disgust and maternal feelings. There is a high turnover of staff, so the boy never really gets to know any of the aides.
After a couple of years, the wood shop teacher leaves, and many of the boys are moved to a different institution. Only the more severely retarded, including the boy, remain.
In 1952, a truck loaded with wheat overturns on the road near the institution. For weeks the boys find wheat in the ditches and hedges and play with it. They regard it as “a mysterious gift” from outside.
This is the last memorable thing that happens in the boy’s life for some while. As he becomes an adult, he lives for mealtimes, and by the age of thirty he has become grotesquely fat. He is allowed to help in the apple orchard across the road, although he is not much use there. In 1956, a motorized cultivator arrives, which frightens him. He rushes back to the home, where he is left alone.
One of his peculiarities that amuses the men who work in the garden is that he is afraid of birds. If a bird such as a sparrow flies up suddenly from a bush or from a new-plowed field, he is terrified. Even as an adult, he runs babbling into the kitchen on such occasions.
At the end of the 1950s, the man’s parents die. Nobody tries to explain this to him, and he does not know exactly when or in what order they die. He is just aware that he has not seen them for a few years, and he misses them in a vague kind of way.
In September, 1977, the retarded man sits in the dayroom in the new home, sixty miles from the previous one, which was torn down in 1963. He sits in his favorite spot by the window, looking out onto an asphalt yard with a wilted flowerbed and three parking places. It is a still day. He sits there for hours, moving his chair a few inches every hour so that it always remains in the patch of sunlight. In some mysterious way, he is in harmony with the entire cosmos. In the shadows cast by the leaves against the wall, he sees the mushrooms that he used to love as a child. He lets his imagination roam over those shapes, recreating many mushrooms, each one different from the others, and allowing them all to grow in fantastic and unique ways. He appreciates how mysterious life is and has a sense of its greatness, a greatness which includes himself.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Lars Gustafsson, Published by Gale Group, 2010