In one way or another, all of the characters in Leffland’s short story “Last Courtesies” live isolated lives. The least alienated may be Jody, even though she is described as having many male suitors come to her apartment each night (and Vladimir calls her as a prostitute). On one level, Jody appears to be the most social, but her emotions, in order to handle her way of life, must be guarded. She thus isolates herself from those feelings. If she is indeed a prostitute, then Jody also removes herself from acceptable social practices and a committed relationship. If Lillian is the most socially aware of the characters, then Jody’s lack of concern for Lillian’s comfort, demonstrated by playing loud music at night, can be seen as symbolic of how alienated she feels. Jody separates herself from Lillian’s humanity, not thinking of Lillian as a person who needs sleep. Jody is the only person who really matters and in this sense she does not connect with others. Jamie is a rather morose figure, often seen alone, waiting for Jody to reappear. He stands outside her apartment, often in the rain, just staring.
The secret revealed at the ending is that Jamie is a serial killer. Intensely alienated, Jamie is in fact a sociopath, capable of gruesome acts. Vladimir experiences an immigrant’s alienation, trying to live in a foreign culture, trying to communicate in a second language. He acts out his frustration and anger is socially unacceptable ways, but he is in truth a cultivated individual who can connect to others through shared appreciation of the arts. Aunt Bedelia sees the best in Vladimir, and this view of him encourages him to communicate. Others, however, are put off by his eccentricities; therefore, Vladimir withdraws from them. Lillian assumes she has the best social skills of all the characters. But she may be the most isolated. She knows how to act as if she is part of the social group, but she has little or no connections with others. She lives alone, and her attempts at socializing fail. She does not know how to carry on a conversation. She is unable to assert herself with Jody. She feels roughly treated by others and harbors hostility. Lingering grief over her aunt’s death and the loss of the social insulation Bedelia provided, Lillian feels exposed and powerless.
Eccentricities abound in this short story. Of all the characters, Vladimir is the most explicitly eccentric. He does not care about his odd clothes, his shocking language, what social conventions he breaks. Vladimir does what he wants. He is not ignorant of common practices but rather chooses to ignore them. Aunt Bedelia is eccentric in another way. She is a woman of times-gone-by. Her formal education sets her apart from most people. She is excessively particular and refined. Lillian, on the other hand, is eccentric in a more monotonous way. She is plain, soft-spoken, and submissive. Her eccentricities are those of boredom gone to an extreme. She does very little for herself in her dress, her attitude, her respect for herself. Her routine is based on sameness and dullness. But underneath this mask is a fanatic, who smiles, sometimes, at the pain of others. Eccentricities in these characters make them appear unique and, in many ways, fascinating because they are not one-dimensional or stereotypical figures.
From the actions of Jamie, squashing cockroaches, to the thread of murders that runs through this story, violence is an underlying current. Violence is suggested, as in news stories that are mentioned and in some of Lillian’s thoughts when she grows tired of being so passive. Violence is present in the anecdotes told about Vladimir, who takes out his anger on strangers. Actual violence explodes in several scenes, for instance when Vladimir and Lillian try to make sense of one another toward the end of the story and in their anger slap one another. Then there is the final act of violence when Jamie kills Lillian. Although this strain of violence runs through the story, however, very little of it is detailed. Thus the violence is felt under the surface rather than being fully displayed. Readers sense it rather than witness it.
Although Vladimir is fearful for Lillian, it is Lillian herself who manifests the most fear in this story. She claims she is not too shy, but she is definitely easily intimidated. She tries to confront Jody in an attempt to get her upstairs neighbor to turn down her music, but the confrontation brings little result.
Lillian leaves it like that. Her fear in this instance is based on her understanding of social grace. She does not want to “make a scene.” When Vladimir comes over for a visit and hears all the racquet, he becomes inflamed. But Lillian tries to quiet him. She does not want him to confront her neighbor. Lillian would rather suffer through the noise. Lillian is also afraid of Vladimir. She has heard rumors of his having been institutionalized and fears his irrationality. Lillian is a straightforward kind of woman, hoping always to present herself in a simple and uncomplicated way. Vladimir is just the opposite. He acts out his emotions immediately without giving them much reflection. In contrast, Lillian, who is afraid of her own emotions, holds her feelings in, controlling every one of her actions no matter how she feels. In the end, her fear blinds her. Instead of trusting Vladimir who is trying to protect her, she is afraid of him and does not allow him back into her house. Instead, she opens the door to Jamie, the only character in this story she should have feared.
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