“Last Courtesies” won the O. Henry Award in 1977, shortly after the short story’s first appearance in print, in a 1976 Harper’s Magazine . When the collection Last Courtesies was published in 1980, John Romano, for the New York Times , described the collection as a series of “sad tales” which contain characters who are “profoundly alone,” are suffering, and “cannot make [themselves] understood.” However, Romano modified his statement by asserting that even though Leffland’s characters suffer these problems, readers are not, at first, fully aware of the characters’ anguish because, according to Romano, “the narrator is always there with them.” Romano further explained that the reader is not completely taken into the characters’ pain because Leffland’s “authorial presence is distinctly caring,” and her “imagination is always bound up with sympathy.” In a 2003 article, written for the Kenyon Re, Henry Alley completes a comprehensive overview of the various winners of the O. Henry Award, comparing them to the times in which they were written. In reference to Leffland’s short story, Alley states that “Last Courtesies” “belongs distinctly to the seventies, because the complex protagonist Lillian cannot locate, exactly, where the crack in the world is.” Leffland’s story reflects the fact that the decade was one of cultural revolution, a time of fast changes and discordances.
In the early 2000s, the collection has not received much critical attention. But Leffland’s writing in general has. She was described as a “really good” novelist, for instance, in Carolyn See’s Washington Post review of another Leffland work. Also, Sybil S. Steinberg, writing for lishers Weekly , asserted that Leffland’s writings demonstrated the “breadth and seriousness” of the author’s imagination. Finally, critic Donna Seaman, writing for Booklist , commenting on Leffland’s Breath and Shadows , found that Leffland “writes with a grandeur and an omnipotence reminiscent of nineteenth-century fiction.” Seaman also found that this particular book was a “wise and poetic novel as enchanting and resonant as a fairy tale.” Hart is the author of several books. In the following essay, Hart looks at the relationship between the protagonist Lillian and the piano tuner Vladimir in Leffland’s short story.
In the short story “Last Courtesies,” author Ella Leffland has created characters that stand diametrically opposed to one another. Sharp differences are most exaggerated in the contrast between the protagonist Lillian and the piano tuner Vladimir. Only the relationship between Lillian and Vladimir spans the entire story. As a matter of fact, the continual back-and-forth dialogues, confrontations, and contradictions between them hold this story together, create the tension, and make “Last Courtesies” what many reviewers refer to as a psychological study.
Pointing out the significance of these two characters and their contrary relationship, Leffland begins her story with one of the couple’s many disagreements. Vladimir sums up Lillian’s personality and the reason why she has so many difficulties. “Lillian, you’re too polite,” he says. Lillian immediately contradicts him. But even more telling than this is the way, right from the beginning, that Leffland presents this information. She gives Vladimir’s comment as a direct quotation, but for Lillian’s response, Leffland has the narrator describe the protagonist’s thoughts. Lillian, in other words, keeps them to herself. She does not agree with Vladimir but for some common courtesy, some social restraint that Lillian has imposed upon herself, she does not believe it is correct to express to Vladimir how she feels. Or maybe she is just not confident in her own assessment of herself. Whatever the reason, Vladimir displays an aspect of his personality, saying what is on his mind no matter how unacceptable it may be, and Lillian supresses hers, keeping her feelings concealed.
Social courtesies are important to Lillian. She believes, according to the narrator, that “the world owed itself,” in the least, human courtesies. Without these social amenities, Lillian thinks, the world would collapse. In her mind, she obeys what she believes are proper social graces. Courtesies come before all else.
Not so for Vladimir. This man has a reputation for doing the socially unacceptable. He uses foul language; curses piano owners who do not take care of their musical instruments; and it is said that he even once knocked down a relative in the course of a discussion about the German composer Richard Wagner (an anti-Semite whose music was a favorite among the Nazis). Vladimir also scares off mothers and their young children, and, at his worst, is reported to have thrown buckets of urine on dog owners who make the mistake of stopping under Vladimir’s windows to allow their pets to relieve themselves. But according to others the worst of all Vladimir’s social disgraces is the fact that he has been “institutionalized several times.” Even though he admits himself to mental facilities voluntarily, this part of his past terrifies Lillian. She wants to fit in, and to her, Vladimir’s giving himself over to medication, a strictly controlled environment, and subsequent loss of freedom proves that he knows he does not fit in and that he may cause harm to himself or to others. Lillian could be correct in feeling this way. But another possible reason that Vladimir turns himself in is that he becomes, at certain times, so fed up with society he needs a sabbatical from it.
Ironically, Vladimir believes that he fits quite well in society, at least most of the time. He thinks that he is just like most people—aggressive, vile, loud, and outspoken. Vladimir tells Lillian that it is she who is really out of step, despite the fact that she strives every day to fit in. Of course, Lillian disagrees with this point, too.
About midway through the story, Vladimir tells Lillian that she is too soft. He describes himself in contrast as “an armored tank.” This is his way of taking care of himself in an uncaring, deceitful society that will take advantage of those who are weak. Lillian’s softness makes her vulnerable, Vladimir believes, so he advises her to get married. “I have no desire to marry,” Lillian tells him. But Vladimir scoffs at her reply. This world is not for desires, he informs her, and she had better stop living through her heart and start living through her head. “Think of your scalp!” he warns her. But Lillian really does not live through her heart. If she did, she might be better off than she is. Lillian lives neither through her heart nor her head. She lives through her imagination. Lillian imagines that there is some universal audience that is viewing her everyday performance. This audience is extremely judgmental, and if she does not pass their tests, she will be disgraced. She cannot always put her finger on who this audience is or what their rules are, but she has some vague ideas. When she transgresses (such as the time she wants to slap a stranger in the bus for stepping on her foot), she is remorseful.
Vladimir is right: Lillian is too soft. No matter how much she tries to deny this, her actions confirm Vladimir’s observations. She plays the victim role quite well. For instance, she allows Jody, her upstairs neighbor, to nearly drive her crazy with loud noises both day and night. Yes, Lillian does complain to Jody but to no avail. Lillian might know how to ask for changes in her neighbor’s behavior, but she does not know how to insist. She does not know how to do more than complain, how to take a problem and stick with it until she comes up with a solution. Lillian’s idea of solving a problem is to wish it away and then hide or suffer while it persists. When Vladimir steps in, trying to help, Lillian is anything but thankful. Vladimir attempts to fill the gaps in Lillian’s personality. He is loud and demanding. But this embarrasses Lillian. She is humiliated by his social transgressions. If Lillian had allowed Vladimir full rein, if she had stepped back or even encouraged him, she might have finally enjoyed a good night’s sleep without resorting to sleeping pills. But instead, she now has Vladimir to worry about.
There is another area in which these two characters contrast. That is in their instincts. Lillian’s instincts are as off-the-mark as Vladimir’s are on. She refuses to judge Jody and Jody’s companion Jamie in an unfavorable light. “They’re people, Vladimir,” Lillian tells him. “Human beings like ourselves.” Of course, Vladimir has fun with that statement. He says Jody and Jamie are people from the sewers: “The sewers are vomiting them up by the thousands to mix with us.” They are “weak, no vision, no guts.” Then Vladimir states that Jody and Jamie represent “the madness of our times.” Intriguingly Vladimir describes Jody and Jamie, in part, the same way he does Lillian—weak and no guts. Moreover, he uses the term madness, one that others use to describe him.
So is there any reasonableness in either Lillian or Vladimir? Is it found in Lillian who suppresses all her emotions, denying herself the pleasure of expression and driving her into the role of victim? Or is it found in Vladimir, who makes a lot of noise but pushes people away from him because of it? These characters both appear to be searching for something. Lillian is caught between wanting Vladimir, for example, and being reviled by him.
She invites him for dinner not because she wants to see him (or at least not because she can admit to herself that she wants him) but because “it would be too rude” not to. And yet, at the moment that Vladimir mentions that he senses “sex boiling” around her, Lillian silently hopes that Vladimir’s “hands would leap on her.” And then there is Vladimir, who sincerely cares about Lillian. He sits in his car all night worrying about her and yells at her and shakes her, trying to wake her up to the potential danger that he feels is nearby. He is constantly advising her on how to act, how to dress. But then he adds: “I have always regretted . . . that you resemble the wrong side of your family.” This man is definitely not a romantic. When he tries to demonstrate his emotions for her, he fiercely grabs her wrists and slaps them together in a tight grip that causes her pain, and then he slams his two open hands against her cheeks. This, of course, frightens Lillian, who absolutely—both figuratively and physically—slams the door on him.
Had Lillian and Vladimir worked out their differences, they might have enjoyed themselves as a couple. Vladimir might have saved Lillian’s life, and for her part, Lillian might have made Vladimir a little more socially tame. But then if that had happened, it would have been a different story.
Joyce Hart, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Ella Leffland, Published by Gale Group, 2006