Bobbie Ann Mason’s short story, “Residents and Transients,” first appeared in the Boston Review in 1982, shortly before its inclusion in the collection, Shiloh and Other Stories. The volume received high critical praise and several nominations for awards, as well as receiving the Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award in 1983. Readers and critics alike have praised Mason’s blunt, straightforward style as well as the way she develops her characters by saying less, rather than more.
“Residents and Transients” has not been anthologized quite so widely as some of Mason’s other stories, nor has the story received as much critical attention as her novels. Nevertheless, the story offers a number of interesting features that are worthy of closer examination. Indeed, the story is considerably more complicated than might be thought on first reading.
One of the first features of the story, apparent to anyone who has read Mason’s fiction, is that Mary differs from her other female characters in several important ways. In the first place, she left Kentucky for eight years, “pursuing higher learning.” Nearly all of Mason’s other female characters make their homes in Kentucky and virtually none pursue higher learning. Mason left Kentucky to earn both a master’s degree and a doctorate in English, living in the northeast for twenty-eight years before moving back to Kentucky in 1990. The “higher learning” is in all likelihood an advanced degree in English; not only does Mary stay away for eight years, the length of time usually allowed for the completion of a doctorate, she alludes to a Dylan Thomas poem, “Fern Hill,” when she is riding in the plane with Larry.
There are other similarities between the writer and her protagonist. Mason herself grew up on a dairy farm, the same background she gives to Mary. Further, as Mason told Albert Wilhelm in a 1995 interview, “First, you go out into the world in quest of understanding. Then you return to your origins and finally comprehend them. It wasn’t until I had pursued my education that I was able to know where the subject of my fiction was. Education has a way of being abstract until you can link it up with experience. I loved the abstractions, but then at some point, I planted a garden, and everything started to come together. Life, art, cats, family, fiction, words, weeds.”
Like Mason, Mary wants things to start coming together. She watches the corn grow and she tends to cats. Although it would probably be a mistake to argue too strenuously for an autobiographical link between Bobbie Ann Mason and Mary, certainly Mason has infused Mary with some of her own affection for the land and for cats.
Her story features a series of dichotomies. A dichotomy is a division into two mutually exclusive or contradictory groups. By dividing characters, settings, and ideas into two opposite groups, Mason is able to reveal more about each by contrasting it with its opposite. The most obvious dichotomy in the story is the one revealed in its title. Mary explains to Larry the difference between the resident cats and transient cats. This dichotomy also suggests something important about Mary: it is difficult to determine which camp she is in. She is no longer a resident because of her long absence. But she ceased being a transient when she returned to her parents’ home. She is caught somewhere in the middle. By establishing oppositions such as this one, Mason reveals this very important feature about Mary: she frequently finds herself caught between two, mutually exclusive oppositions.
Early in the story, Mason contrasts the Kentucky natives with Stephen who is “one of those Yankees who are moving into this region with increasing frequency, a fact which disturbs the native residents.” Mary, however, ”would not have called Stephen a Yankee,” once again revealing her reluctance to classify people or ideas. Mason also divides financial matters and property owners into two groups as well. There are those who prefer “liquid assets,” like Stephen, and those who prefer to bury their money in the land, both literally and figuratively. That is, there are those who choose to borrow money to buy property, leaving their cash available for other uses, and those who do not believe in debt, like Mary’s parents.
A less obvious contrast in the story is between verbal and non-verbal communication. Stephen is a master of words. Not only does he sell wordprocessors for a living, he ”processes” words when he and Mary talk on the phone or when they visit the financial counselor. His communication is strictly verbal; words are his business and his life. Larry, ironically, who “overhauls” mouths for a living, says very little. He is reticent, quiet and discreet. Again, Mary seems caught in the middle; she is “incoherent” when she speaks to Stephen on the phone, and she falls silent. However, she is also the narrator of the story, the one who relates to the reader what happens. Thus, while she does not ”process” words in her conversation with Stephen, she nonetheless is a word processor, someone who links words together to tell a story.
The most important dichotomy in the story, however, is that between childhood and adulthood. There are many clues to suggest that Mary is attempting to return to her childhood. Her allusion to the poem “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas underscores this desire. In “Fern Hill,” Thomas recalls his own “green” childhood, with longing and nostalgia. Furthermore, Mary is at the moment of transition when she will need to move away from childhood and into adulthood, with all the responsibilities and cares that such a move entails. She is fearful and resistant to making the change. When the story opens, the reader finds that Mary has moved back to Kentucky, to her childhood home, to care for her failing parents. Yet her parents leave Kentucky shortly thereafter to live in Florida, leaving Mary metaphorically orphaned. Their absence, however, signals that it is Mary’s turn to take on the responsibility of a household.
Perhaps less obvious, but no less important, is the implication that it is time for Mary to start a family of her own. Certainly, Stephen’s search for a home suggests his need to settle down and start a family. Mary’s resistance to not only moving to Louisville but also to even visiting Stephen seems to symbolize a deeply rooted fear of sex, pregnancy, and motherhood.
There are many clues pointing in this direction. First, Mary has directed her own maternal instincts toward the cats. She says, “They seem to be my responsibility, like some sins I have committed, like illegitimate children.” It would be possible to argue that the sin is her failure to procreate, to carry on her family line. Second, her affair with Larry is essentially immature, as evidenced by Mason’s description of them as children. The first time he comes to the house, Larry brings ice cream and drives a truck with ”a chrome streak on it that makes it look like a rocket, and on the doors it has flames painted.” While such a truck might be appropriate for a teenager out to see his girlfriend, it seems less appropriate for a divorced dentist pursuing an adulterous affair. Larry does not call her Mary, but Mary Sue, her childhood name. They play Monopoly, and go to eat at a restaurant “where you choose your food from pictures on a wall.”
Certainly, nothing in this relationship suggests that two adults are involved. The most obvious absence in the story is any mention of sex. Although Mary and Larry are lovers, the only reference Mary makes to their lovemaking is to note that the ”Cats march up and down the bed while we are in it.” There are other subtle clues that Mary fears both sex and pregnancy; in some cases, Mason uses phallic symbols to suggest Mary’s apprehension about sexual intimacy. For example, when Larry first comes to the house, he frightens Mary by looking in her mouth. Later, she reports that she will not let him get near her mouth. “I clamp my teeth shut and grin widely, fighting off imaginary drills.”
While Mary remains in her parents house, away from Stephen, she can avoid pregnancy and motherhood, even though she seems aware of her own biological clock: “I am nearly thirty years old. I have two men, eight cats, no cavities.”
Her own anxiety over pregnancy is further revealed by her description of her cat, Ellen, who had a vaginal infection, lost a litter of kittens because of an x-ray, and eventually had to be spayed. Although Mary does not directly relate her worry over the cat to her own body, she nonetheless writes her parents in great detail. She seems unhappy that they do not respond, as if she wants reassurance from them. In the same paragraph, Mary mentions again the house that Stephen wants to buy, indirectly reminding the reader that playing house and keeping house are two different propositions.
The most graphic image appears near the end of the story. Larry suggests that they break up, asserting that he thinks she is bored with him. Mary does not deny this. When Larry says that he wants her to stay with him, Mary responds, “I wish it could be that way…. I wish that was right.” As soon as Mary implies that staying with him is not right, and that she should go to Louisville, they come upon a rabbit, struggling in the road. “It is hopping in place, the way runners will run in place. Its forelegs are frantically working, but its rear end has been smashed and it cannot get out of the road.” Mary seems to identify with the rabbit to such an extent that she is incoherent when her husband calls. Moreover, there is little doubt that the rabbit will die, reminding the reader of an old euphemism for pregnancy. Years ago, when people said, “The rabbit died,” they meant that a woman’s pregnancy test had come back positive.
As the story closes, Mary obliviously shreds the Monopoly money in her hand as she talks to Stephen. Whether or not she will make the next step, from play money to real money, from playing house to keeping house, from illegitimate cats to real babies, is unclear at the end of the story. Like the rabbit, she is caught in the light, neither here nor there, and she waits “for the light to change.”
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Bobbie Ann Mason, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.