Change and Transformation
In an interview with Albert Wilhelm, Bobbie Ann Mason maintains that ”Literature is principally about textures and feelings, not themes and symbols, which are sort of like lead weights on the bottom of a shower curtain. They hold it in place and give it shape, but they aren’t the curtain itself.” Certainly, the textures and feelings in “Residents and Transients” are ones of uncertainty and change. While there is potential for transformation, it is unclear at the end of the story what that transformation may or may not be.
The main character, Mary, finds herself in the middle of both emotional and cultural changes. These are signaled, first, by her return to Kentucky, and second, by her reluctance to move to Louisville with her husband. Although she has been a transient for eight years, and agreed to continue this lifestyle when she married her husband, she seems to reject this lifestyle now. In addition, her surprise at having taken a lover suggests that this is not normal behavior for Mary. Her infidelity must be a symptom of a much bigger problem.
Mason presents a larger cultural change in her story as well. Mary tells the reader that Stephen ”is one of those Yankees who are moving into this region with increasing frequency, a fact that disturbs the native residents.” Furthermore, Stephen sells word processors. The influx of outside influences—technology, transient lifestyles, northerners—will surely bring with it concomitant cultural change to the quaint region.
Although it is clear by the end of the story that the area is undergoing change and transformation, it is difficult to determine how this ultimately will affect Mary. She is receiving (and sending) conflicting signals, the red and the green lights blinking simultaneously. She is neither resident nor transient, Stephen’s nor Larry’s. At the conclusion of the story, Mary is still unsure of her future.
Love and Passion
This is a story of a woman who has both a husband and a lover, yet there is little love or passion evident in the story. There is little proof that Mary loves her husband; the closest she comes to even expressing affection for him is when he calls to tell her he has found a house, and she muses, ”His voice is so familiar I can almost see him, and I realize that I miss him.”
In addition, Mary cannot remember how her affair with Larry began. “I can’t remember what signals passed between us, but it was suddenly appropriate that he drop by,” she reports. This scarcely seems like the start of a passionate affair. Although “Larry wears a cloudy expression of love,” Mary seems to feel only pity for him. Mary’s response to the affair is one of surprise, not love or passion. When Larry asks if she wants to stop seeing him because he thinks she is bored, Mary does not reassure him. Although it is clear she does not want to go to Louisville, it is unclear if this has anything to do with Larry.
The only love Mary seems to feel is for the cats, the corn growing in the field, and her mother’s canning kitchen. The conclusion of the story is ambiguous. Although Mary tells Stephen she is coming to Louisville to see the house, she seems to retreat from this position when Stephen tells her how to feel. ‘”You’ve got to be flexible,’ he tells her breezily. ‘That kind of romantic emotion is just like flag-waving. It leads to nationalism, fascism— you name it; the very worst kinds of instincts. Listen, Mary, you’ve got to be more open to the way things are.” Mary’s response is to rush out of the house, and watch her cat come up the lane.
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.