Gustafsson’s “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases” says a great deal in a short space about mental retardation and how it was regarded in the mid-twentieth century. It deserves a place alongside other short stories of the century, such as Jack London’s “Told in the Drooling Ward” (1914) and Eudora Welty’s “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” (1941), both of which treat the subject of mental retardation with humor and understanding. The boy in Gustafsson’s story is recognized by his family as being retarded when he is still very young. He does not learn as quickly as his brother and sister, and his language skills lag behind the norm. But his parents seem to have little idea of what to do with him. They beat him so that he will not go to the woodshed and hurt himself, and they also ban him from the woods behind the barn, which is the only place he feels at home. They no doubt feel protective of his welfare, but like other parents of a mentally retarded child, they must decide what to do with him. This boy is given only a week at a normal school. When he cannot learn anything in that time he is, one presumes, declared impossible to educate—a not uncommon attitude at the time. Not knowing what else to do with him, and perhaps feeling the stigma often attached to those who had a retarded person in the family, his parents send him to an institution. For the better part of the century, institutionalization of the retarded was the norm. It was considered better for the general welfare if they were herded together, isolated from society’s embarrassed and disapproving gaze.
The home in the story takes in boys of all levels of mental retardation. Some are severe cases, such as the fat boy who makes little paper balls out of anything he can find and eats them. Some of the boys cannot feed themselves properly; most of them move around slowly, and “some were so deep in their own worlds that nothing could have disturbed them.” The protagonist is himself considered one of the “hopeless ones,” but that is only after an encouraging period in his life comes to an end. The shining light in this story is the unnamed teacher who arrives at the home when the boy is about thirteen years old. The fact that there is a teacher at all shows that the home does make some effort to educate its residents, unlike some of the worst institutions in Europe and the United States that during the twentieth century had the responsibility of caring of some of society’s most vulnerable citizens. In the story, the boys who are only mildly retarded are given practical training in the wood shop, and their new teacher makes every effort to involve the unnamed protagonist, who is more severely retarded, in useful activity. He is allowed to sort pieces of wood, sweep floors, and empty pails of wood shavings. The teacher treats him like a human being, and the boy responds. He is made to feel that he really exists, even though he still lacks language skills, and the other boys laugh at him.
The real tragedy in the boy’s life comes after the teacher leaves. No one thereafter takes much notice of him, and as a result of his neglect, he “slip[s] away,” into his interior world, isolated from meaningful human contact. As an adult he is allowed to get fat, and apart from his supervised and unrewarding trips to the apple orchard, he appears to spend most of his time, for many years, sitting in a chair in the dayroom gazing out of the window.
It is here that the story takes an almost mystical turn. The arc of the retarded man’s life has appeared to be plunging downward. His parents are dead. He has no friends. No one thinks about him. He has nothing to do. As the narrator puts it, he is “quite empty,” and this condition has endured for ten years. But then comes the astonishing reversal. The emptiness turns out to be an illusion. Hidden to the undiscerning eye is a fullness in this man’s life that belies his apparent isolation. Far from being empty, his mind is in fact intricately at work, constructing meaning and delight for himself in the mushroom patterns he creates from the ever-changing shadows of the leaves on the wall. These images reconnect him to nature, reminding him of the kinship he felt with mushrooms in those long ago days in the woods, before society labeled him as a mental defective and packed him off to an institution. As he sits and watches, and with an ingenuity that no observer would suspect, he allows his self-created mushroom-shapes to grow, to live and to die in a natural cycle that makes him feel in harmony with nature’s infinite variety, with the entire stream of time and space, of which he knows himself, all “mysterious and great,” to be a part.
No one had ever written about a mentally retarded person in this way before. The stories by London and Welty, although they empathize with the retarded, are more naturalistic in vein. London creates an entertaining adventure around Tom, his first-person narrator, who is a twenty-eight-year-old “feeb,” that is, a resident of a home for the feeble-minded, in California. The twist is that Tom, who works as an attendant and helps to feed the more severely retarded (the “droolers” of the title), is a lot smarter than many of the so-called normal people who run the institution. In Welty’s story, three respectable ladies in Mississippi, horrified by the emerging sexuality of the mildly retarded Lily Daw, conspire to have her sent to the Ellisville Institute for the Feeble-Minded. The story is a satire which exposes the fear that people had at the time—the story was published in 1941—of the supposed rampant, immoral sexuality of the mentally retarded.
Gustafsson’s purpose is quite different. He does not try to pretend that the boy is more intelligent than he appears or poke fun at or criticize those who have charge of his life. Instead, artfully combining images of motion and stillness, and alternating between the vast and the minute—from the galaxy to the unborn fetus—he invests the severely retarded, obese man with a massive dignity, a greatness even, by placing him in harmony with the great rhythms of the cosmos and with its inscrutable mysteries and purposes. By moving his chair, so slowly, so awkwardly, with such difficulty, to ensure that he always stays in the sliver of sunlight that illumines the floor of the dayroom, he becomes, in spite of his big, cumbersome body, a tiny part of the eternal cosmic dance.
Perhaps the only work of literature that comes anywhere near a resemblance to this extraordinary tour de force is William Wordsworth’s poem “The Idiot Boy,” from his Lyrical Ballads (1798). In this ballad, a woman named Betty Foy sends Johnny, her retarded young son, out on a pony at night to fetch the doctor to aid a sick neighbor. Johnny, not grasping what is expected of him, fails to summon the doctor and instead spends the entire night out under the stars, worrying the life out his mother. But the “idiot boy” is the real hero of the poem. In his simplicity, he possesses a spontaneity and oneness with nature that eludes the adults in the poem, who are weighed down by their worries and concerns. Several times Wordsworth uses the word “glory” in association with Johnny, which, like Gustafsson’s use of the word “great” in connection with his protagonist, is not a word that most people would immediately associate with the mentally retarded. But in the penultimate stanza of “The Idiot Boy,” for example, Betty asks Johnny what he did all night, to which he responds, “The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo, / And the sun did shine so cold.” The narrator comments in the following line, “Thus answered Johnny in his glory.” Like Johnny, the retarded man in “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases” has an inner life that cannot be appreciated by those who assess human worth only in terms of narrowly defined notions of intelligence. As he sits alone at his window, he is a part of what Shakespeare, in The Winter’s Tale , called “great creating nature” (IV, iv, 89), which has a place and a purpose for everything under the sun, including those who, through no fault of their own, are left in isolation to spin their dreams and seek their connection to the great whole.
Bryan Aubrey, 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