Saul Bellow’s “Leaving the Yellow House” is one of his most frequently anthologized and discussed pieces of fiction, yet in many ways it is atypical of his body of work. It is set in the western desert, not the city, and its protagonist is a woman disinclined to intellectual or spiritual matters. However, the story is as complex as any of Bellow’s other works. In Hattie Waggoner, Bellow creates a character with an unintentional duplicitous nature. Hattie’s tendency toward prevarication—to herself as well as to others—leads her to create an unstable and disinterested world in which her way of life becomes threatened.
Many elements of the story manifest this dual nature. Hattie claims that Sego Desert Lake is ‘”one of the most beautiful places in the world,”‘ but in reality it is “barren” and decrepit with “very few trees” and fewer “good houses.” Jerry Rolfe, one of the few characters who epitomizes good sense, points out some of Sego Desert Lake’s deficiencies: for one thing, it is located hundreds of miles away from any major city. ‘”Who wants to live way out here but a few eccentrics?'” he asks Hattie, not shying away from labeling both of them thusly.
Many of the other people who populate Sego Desert Lake are eccentric and double natured. Darly is “not a genuine cowboy.” Like Hattie, he is a “late-comer from the East,” but he has taken on the necessary accoutrements of Western life, such as boots, and works at a dude ranch where women go to bed with him because they think he is a real cowboy. India, Hattie’s former companion, was a cultured woman who claimed to be interested in intellectual discussions of religion and literature, but in reality, she generally spent her time, like Hattie, wandering around the house, drunk, clad only in her slip. India’s double nature further revealed itself along with the development of her temper: “the worse her temper the more British her accent became.” Amy Walters, another elderly resident, lives at what she calls Fort Walters, but the structure is really only a shack-like building made out of tar paper that sits over a deserted mine shaft.
Hattie’s existence is truly based on her self-imposed network of false premises. The very presentation of the woman underscores her double nature. Although Hattie is an aging alcoholic who lives a life of sloth and procrastination, the narrator nevertheless asserts, “You couldn’t help being fond of Hattie.” For while Hattie is lazy and meanspirited, she is also “big and cheerful, puffy, comic.” Once a week, Hattie dresses up in her girdle, high heels, and lipstick to make the forty-mile trip to the nearest town. Hattie’s past also indicates a fall from grace, thus a change from what she once was; she once attended finishing school and studied the organ in Paris, and she had been married to a member of a fine, old Philadelphia family. This social shift is epitomized by her home, which has canned goods stacked on the library shelves but also “good silver and good china and engraved stationery.” More important to the understanding of Hattie’s complex characterization, though, is that although “she wanted to be thought of as a rough, experienced woman of the West,” she can’t even take care of herself.
The most significant evidence of Hattie’s double nature, however, is her habit of self-deception. For instance, Hattie claims to be a Christian, thus she can ‘”never bear a grudge,”‘ but the text points out that only by repeating these words to herself does she succeed in not holding a grudge against the people who have wronged her. She also thinks unkind things about the Rolfes though they are the only people who truly go out of their way—and with no other motivation than genuine concern—to help her. When the Rolfes tell her not to be stingy and leave the heating pad on her arm even though it will use up her butane gas, Hattie thinks,”’Stingy! Why you’re the stingy ones. I haven’t got anything. You and Helen are ready to hit each other over two bits in canasta.'” But she immediately acknowledges to herself that ”the Rolfes were good to her; they were her only real friends here.” Such comprehension, however, does not keep her from silently calling Helen Rolfe such names as “B—h-eyes.” She even believes that the Rolfes should not take a vacation because they will be leaving her alone: “But there was no reason to go to Seattle—” Hattie thinks of the Rolfes’ upcoming trip, “no genuine business…. It was only idleness, only a holiday.” Not only does Hattie fail to realize that her own life has also turned into one of idleness, she also extends her self-alienation when she concludes that the Rolfes are vacationing as a way of telling her that ”there was a limit to what she could expect them to do for her.” Hattie, who considers herself a nice person, only knows how to react to this supposed slight with cruelty; to get back at the Rolfes, she tells Helen,”if I have to leave the lake you’ll be ten times more lonely than before.”
Hattie also lies to herself, both about her own character and actions. She perceives of herself as “one of the pioneers” of the West, though she only arrived a few decades back, a “city woman” who could never make it on her own. Though she “had lived on the range like an old-timer,” the story makes clear that it was her lover, Wick, who enabled the couple to survive thusly. In fact, though Wick wants to marry her, she refuses because she was a “snob about her Philadelphia connections. Give up the name of Waggoner? How could she?” But she is so deceptive that she never even tells Wick the real reason that she turns down his proposal. She further deceives herself by rejecting Wick, who truly cared for her.
Also significant in the story is the way Hattie lies to herself about her drinking. She maintains that she had the car accident because she sneezed, but it is clear that she was drunk and lost control of her car—just as she has lost control of steering her life on any proper course. As the car is stuck on the railroad tracks, so Hattie’s life is stuck in Sego Desert Lake—primarily because of the choices she has made and her refusal to deal with life honestly.
A turning point comes for Hattie when she admits to herself that she killed her own dog, Richie, and buried him in the yard, though she has long accused a neighbor of the animal’s disappearance. She had no choice but to kill Richie when he turned “evil” and physically attacked her. The human characters in the story, however, also have a habit of turning evil and figuratively attacking those who are closest to them: India attacks Hattie and then begs for forgiveness; Hattie, in turn, attacks Wick and shuns his love. The cyclical nature of this mean spirit is demonstrated as Hattie reiterates India’s words when she mentally asks Wick for his forgiveness; “T hurt myself in my evil,'” she says, as did India. The revelation that she has lied to others about the dog, and to herself, shocks Hattie: ”God what shall I do?” she thinks. “I have taken life. I have lied. I have borne false witness. I have stalled.”
Her realization that her life is not progressing toward any goal makes her do what she has been putting off for weeks now: seeing if she can drive her car, which symbolizes her independence and her capacity to care for herself. But she is unable to shift the gears and steer. This inability makes her understand the frailty of her own life. Determined to do, at long last, something responsible, Hattie sits down to write her will. Though she has already “wept over the ruin of her life,” reflecting on who to give the house to makes her think even more deeply. She acknowledges that she has waited for India to die and that she considered Wick to be inferior to her. Through her ruminations, Hattie comes to define herself by ownership of the house even more. Though she tries to tell herself that she should not give the house to her cousin’s daughter Joyce because she does not want to “doom a younger person to the same life” that she had, in reality, Hattie believes that” [O]nly I fit here.” Indeed, owning the house is all that she has ever had—her car no longer functions for her, and the house now is her only evidence of having achieved any kind of successful life. ‘ 7 was never one single thing anyway,” she thinks. ”Never my own. I was only loaned to myself.” By the end of the story, in her seventy-second year, Hattie has come to equate herself with the house—it is her only worthy quality. Thus, she does the impossible—knowing full well that ‘”this is bad and wrong,”’ she wills the house and its property to herself. In so doing, Hattie continues her lifelong habit of denying reality. Just as Hattie refuses to think that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to life—choosing instead to divide time into the “early middle, then middle middle, late middle middle, quite late middle”—she arrives, not at the end of life where she doesn’t want to be, but at the conclusion that “the middle is all I know.” Such rationalizations not only justify her decision to leave the house to herself—if she isn’t going to die, she doesn’t need to will her house to someone—just negate self-knowledge of her inevitable death.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Saul Bellow, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Rena Korb, Critical Essay on “Leaving the Yellow House,” in Short Stones for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.