”Leaving the Yellow House” is told chronologically. The beginning of the story gives relevant background about Hattie, and then the story shifts to an unfolding of the plot—Hattie’s breaking her arm, her need for assistance, and her feelings of isolation. At the end of the story, Hattie seems about to embark on a crucial decision—who will inherit the yellow house—but she cannot follow through with completing this action; the decision she does make— to leave the house to herself—emphasizes that the story resides in the character’s development rather than in any plot development. Indeed, in his study of Saul Bellow, Robert F. Kiernan called ”Leaving the Yellow House” “[mjore portrait than story.”
Hattie also spends a significant amount of time reflecting on her past. She envisions her life as playing before her as if on a movie screen. Thus the past intertwines with the present narrative, a technique that shows the importance of former experiences to Hattie. The “film” also demonstrates how events and people from days gone by have influenced the situation in which Hattie finds herself at the present time. One memory—when she killed her dog Richie after he attacked her—is particularly significant, for it leads to her self-examination about the life she has led. She has lied to others, and perhaps more importantly, she has been dishonest with herself about the life she has chosen for herself.
Point of View
“Leaving the Yellow House” is told in the third-person omniscient point of view. The narrator reflects objectively on people, places, events, and thoughts. This point of view is effective for several reasons: first, the detached point of view negates Hattie’s overenthusiastic perceptions of her life and surroundings; second, it allows readers to understand Hattie’s situation through a variety of people.
The point of view focuses primarily on Hattie’s thoughts and observations, particularly after she breaks her arm and experiences a crisis of identity. The narrative focuses on Hattie’s psyche as she is in the process of increasingly pondering her options and the fabric of her life.
The setting of the story is Sego Desert Lake, Utah, where a tiny community of people—whites, Mexicans, African Americans, and Native Americans—live. The white people live in houses by the lake, while the minorities live in boxcars and shacks. The nearest town is forty miles away, through the mountainous desert, and supplies all must be purchased from there. The narrator describes the region as “barren,” which sharply contrasts with Hattie’s insistence on the beauty of the place.
The idea of the West played prominently in Hattie’s mind. Drawn to the seeming allure of the rough-and-tumble life, Hattie, like Darly, wanted to experience adventure. At times, Hattie glorifies her life out West; for instance, she recalls living on the range with Wick, but the clearest memory that emerges from this time is of her disturbed feelings as Wick trapped and killed a pure white coyote.
Many symbolic elements are present in ”Leaving the Yellow House,” particularly the house itself. Like Hattie, the house is run-down, aging, and a mass of contradictions. It is filled both with fine china and with decrepit furniture. The library walls are lined, not with books, but with canned goods. The house serves as a kind of prison for Hattie. She spends most of her time in it asleep, but she also feels that she cannot live without the house; this seeming contradiction shows that Hattie has come to embrace her place of confinement. By the end of the story, Hattie identifies herself with the house itself, seeing it as the best part of her.
Other elements of the story have symbolic value. The landscape reflects Hattie’s demeanor; on the surface it is barren but underneath lie volcanic eruptions. Hattie keeps up a pretension of politeness to her friends and neighbors, but secretly she berates them and sometimes she even can’t keep from exploding, as when she verbally attacks Pace. The white coyote killed by Wick can be seen as symbolic of the innocence of the West, corrupted by people, like Hattie, who don’t belong there. Hattie’s car stalled on the railroad tracks symbolizes the course of Hattie’s own life; as she later admits, “I have stalled. And now what shall I do?” Like Hattie’s broken-down car, Hattie’s life and body are in states of disrepair and inactivity.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Saul Bellow, Published by Gale Group, 2001.