Larry is Mary’s dentist. A friend of Mary’s from childhood, he has never moved away. He is a gentle, quiet man, he is quite content with his life. In addition to his dental practice, he owns his own home and a truck. In contrast to Stephen, Larry is slow and relaxed. Although he is sensitive to Mary’s moods and wants to make her happy, he believes that he bores her. He tells Mary that he does not want her to go to Louisville, but wants her to remain in town.
Mary is the narrator of the story. As the story opens, she announces that she has taken a lover. It is revealed that Mary returned to Kentucky about three years before to take care of her sick parents. Since that time, she has married Stephen and her parents have moved to Florida.
Mary is uncertain what she wants in life. She thinks she wants to settle on the farm; however, the farm is for sale. Stephen, her . . . Read More
“Residents and Transients” is set in western Kentucky. The protagonist, Mary, narrates the story in her own voice. She announces in the first paragraph, “Since my husband went away to work in Louisville, I have, to my surprise, taken a lover.” From this surprising opening, Mary explains how she finds herself back in Kentucky, living in her former family home.
Three years before the story opens, Mary had returned to Kentucky (after an absence of eight years) in order to care for her ailing parents. Shortly after returning to Kentucky, she married Stephen, a word processor salesman. At the time of her marriage, she agreed to the frequent transfers his job would require, but now, she is not sure that she wants to move away from home again. Nevertheless, Mary herself feels like an outsider in her home community; her long absence has given her an understanding of the world that the local residents do not have.
Before the story opens, . . . Read More
“Redemption” also belongs to this group of stories which describe and explore the vulnerary function of art. The theme of this story differs somewhat from that of the other three, but the subject matter is the same: the protagonist seeks consolation in the world of music after the death of his brother. Jack Hawthorne, the protagonist, was driving a tractor when his younger brother, David, fell off and was run over and killed by the cultipacker the tractor was hauling. Driven by guilt and self-hatred, the young boy tries to deal with his confusion caused by the accident by perfecting his skills on the French horn; he uses the horn as a means of escape into self-imposed isolation, withdrawing from his family and any other company.
He is brought out of his isolation when he suddenly realizes that he will never reach the level of mastery of his teacher Yegudkin, a seventy-year-old Russian exile who has played with famous orchestras around the world. Yegudkin now . . . Read More
John Gardner, born during the Great Depression, reached adolescence in the years immediately following World War II. The accident that killed his brother took place in 1947, just two years after the end of the war. During this time, much of America was still rural and agricultural. With the advent of the nuclear age, American society began to change as they responded to the communist threat from Eastern Europe. The tension between the United States and the Soviet Union is known as the “Cold War.”
In Europe, the aftermath of the World War II was very difficult. Much of Europe lay in ruins, the result of years of conflict. The realization of what happened at Nazi extermination camps shocked the public. In addition, the specter of Communism loomed as Eastern Europe found itself shrouded under what Winston Churchill called “The Iron Curtain.”
Several images recur throughout “Redemption.” Skulls, for example, appear three times to remind Jack of David’s death. At one point, Jack is alone, driving the tractor in the fields, thinking about the accident and his own guilt, his “sore hands clamped tight to the steering wheel, his shoes unsteady on the bucking axle-beam—for stones lay everywhere, yellowed in the sunlight, a field of misshapen skulls.” Jack’s identification of the stones with skulls is connected to his memory of his brother’s crushed skull in the field. He then recalls his father’s story of Lord Byron and Shelley’s skulls, another indirect reference to what he saw happen to his brother’s head.
A few pages later, he has a flashback of his brother’s death, and this time, he does not see stones that look like skulls, nor Shelley’s skull, but rather the cultipacker . . . Read More
God and Religion
Gardner chooses God and religion as one of his central themes in “Redemption.” More specifically, Gardner chooses to explore theodicy, the defense of God’s omnipotence and goodness in the face of evil. The central question of theodicy is, of course, if God is good and all-powerful, why does God allow evil in the world? How is it that a beneficent and omnipotent God would allow a small child to be crushed to death under the wheels of a cultipacker?
Dale Hawthorne represents the paradox of God’s goodness and God’s omnipotence in his response to David’s death. His mind “swung violently at this time, reversing itself almost hour by hour, from desperate faith to the most savage, black-hearted atheism…. He was unable to decide, one moment full of rage at God’s injustice, the next moment wracked by doubt of his existence.” Often, when presented with unbearable . . . Read More
Betty Hawthorne is Jack’s mother. She grieves for her son in secret; the outward manifestation of this grief is a significant weight gain. Betty struggles to keep her family together through a very difficult time. Fortunately she is comforted by her supportive friends and is able to find the strength she needs to keep going. Betty is the one who introduces the children to music, and her insistence on French horn lessons makes possible Jack’s eventual recovery.
Dale Hawthorne is Jack’s father. The death of his younger son nearly destroys him, and he struggles to deal with the tragedy. He leaves his family, has several love affairs, and generally shirks his responsibility. However, he comes home at last, asking for forgiveness and searching for his own redemption.
Only twelve years old, Jack accidentally . . . Read More
”Redemption” is set in a small farming community in upstate New York. The story opens abruptly with John (Champlin) Gardner, Jr. the announcement that, ”Jack Hawthorne ran over and killed his brother, David.” Jack was driving a tractor and towing a cultipacker when his brother fell off the large machine. Jack is unable to act quickly enough to stop the accident, and David is crushed by the large machine.
The accident affects each member of the family in different ways, and the rest of the story is about how the family, especially Jack, finally come to terms with the death. Jack’s father, Dale, takes the death very hard. A kind and genial man, Dale often recited poetry to groups at local churches and schools. After the accident, Dale begins to engage in a series of self-destructive actions, including riding his motorcycle at high speeds, smoking cigarettes, and engaging in a series of affairs with women. He vacillates between a hatred for . . . Read More
A number of critics have noted that the opening paragraph of Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun” very closely echoes the first stanza of English poet Thomas Gray’s famous “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: The curfew lolls the knell of parting day, / The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea, / The plowman homeward plods his weary way, / And leaves the world to darkness and to me. In Gray’s poem, written in the eighteenth century, the speaker wonders if the rural churchyard might contain the remains of people who had great talents that became stunted or went unrealized and unrecognized because of poverty, ignorance and lack of opportunity. He muses thai “some mule inglorious Milton” might be buried there—someone who possessed the talent of seventeenth-century poet John Millon, bul who remains ”inglorious” (or wilhoul glory) because lack of education made Ihem mule. Freeman closes her slory in Ihe . . . Read More
Religion and Economics
Mary Wilkins Freeman wrote most of her best-known short stories in the 1880s and 1890s. They provide a unique snapshot of a particular time and place in American history. The small towns of postCivil War New England were often desolate places. The war itself, combined with urbanization, industrialization, and westward expansion, had taken most of the young able-bodied men out of the region. The remaining population was largely female and elderly. Women like Louisa Ellis, who waited many years for husbands, brothers, fathers and boyfriends to return from the West or other places they had gone to seek jobs, were not uncommon. The area was suffering from economic depression and many were forced to leave to support themselves and their families. There were many widows from the war, too, often living hand-to-mouth and trying to keep up appearances. Also common were the New England spinsters or old maids—women who, because of . . . Read More