In her short story “Paris 1991,” Kate Walbert immediately contrasts light and dark. The story opens with Rebecca’s arrival by plane “into the city of light [where] she descends in darkness.” This first juxtaposition of light and dark imagery illustrates the tension between illusion and reality in the story, as Rebecca’s fanciful imagination clashes with the evidence of her emotional emptiness. Paris’s “gray storm-ridden sky” colored “a strange mauve” forecasts a confirmation of her sense of meaninglessness rather than the prospect of a significance for which she has been searching.
Rebecca believes that the famously romantic city is a perfect setting for conceiving a baby. She yearns for something to provide her with a sense of meaning, to alleviate the ennui of her life. She decided impulsively to cut up her diaphragm one evening, waving off her husband’s desire to discuss the idea of having children. Yet, despite her dramatic decision, she remains apparently uncertain.
Rebecca tries to convince Tom to start a family through negation, insisting “there’s no good time, really,” and telling him, “you either do it or you don’t. And we know we don’t want to don’t, so we might as well do, right?” When he asks if she is sure, she first says no and later refuses to answer him.
While she hopes that a child will make a positive change in her life, her indecision becomes apparent after she and her husband arrive in Paris when, she estimates, “it is the right time, more or less” to try to conceive, a comment that becomes appropriate not only for her hormonal cycle but also for her feelings about getting pregnant. Tom appears indecisive, too, as he twice eats oysters to “get him in the mood.” Their obvious ambivalence suggests that her hopes will go unrealized.
The decision to have a baby becomes more of a staged “moment” for Rebecca as she cuts up her diaphragm, part of a move toward making a permanent commitment and giving her life meaning. Another part of the staging is having a romantic Parisian setting for the procreation. Rebecca’s active imagination has conjured an image of perfect marital harmony in the city of lights, which should inevitably lead to a purposeful, fulfilled life.
Rebecca frequently creates fictive worlds that are more exciting and adventurous than her own. She determines that “she would like to run through a rainstorm or hunt big game somewhere,” One of her favorite games with Tom when they first met was to imagine other lives that they could have led. She saw herself living with a man in Florence or riding elephants in Rajasthan or sitting under the shade of grapevines at the edge of the Aegean. In Paris, she imagines shops with brightly colored clothing and rooms with trays of cognac and “ripe yellow pears, sliced with pearly-handled silver.” The city’s beauty, the “silver church domes of unimaginable heights,” are all meant to convey a thrill, an intense feeling, in which as she becomes pregnant, Rebecca can begin to live the adventure she envisions.
Reality, however, quickly dissolves the fantasy. Before Paris, Rebecca had felt “distracted always, often alone.” As soon as they arrive, the sense of disconnection between her and her husband becomes apparent. In the cab ride, Tom speaks without looking at her, and later, when she tells him she is hungry, Tom is asleep. Often “she finds herself looking at [Tom] as if he is entirely unfamiliar to her, a blind date, or somebody’s cousin she has agreed to meet.” Rebecca and Tom “came to [Paris to] find conversation, a way of being two together,” but after they arrive, they sit in cafés and “have nothing to say” to each other. Rebecca acknowledges “the city of light’s gone dark” for them. “She had thought that to be in Paris with a husband meant to be bent, head to head, in discussion” as they walked the streets. “She would like to tell him certain things, what she has done or imagined she has done before this moment in her life, but every time she opens her mouth to start a conversation she feels tired.” The setting does not change their relationship or the detachment she feels from him.
Rebecca’s impulse to focus on foreign locales comes from her mother, Marion, who has recently died. With her mother much in her thoughts, Rebecca admits that she often sees Marion “in doorways, crossing the street.” Marion taught Rebecca her favorite imagining game and had herself dreamed of coming to Paris, which suggests that she had similar fantasies of finding happiness through adventure. After buying a fanciful postcard with swooning devils, “sharp-eared men with pointy noses, tiny fingernails, hovering on the shoulders of gentle women,” Rebecca insists to Tom, “Marion would have loved this. I could have sent it with a note, Having a devilish good time. She’d think we were running nude in fountains or something.” She “would have thought it very cosmopolitan.” These remarks suggest that Rebecca is evaluating her present experience in light of Marion’s likely assessment of them.
The fictive nature of Rebecca’s fantasies for her mother, however, becomes evident when Rebecca tries to imagine her there. When she suggests that Marion “would have come to the city in better weather, and would have sat out in the cafés and watched the people and met some dashing Frenchman,” Tom counters with a note of reality, insisting, “Marion would have hated the food.” Similarly, Rebecca’s illusions about what the city will provide for her are eventually dispelled by the reality of her experience there.
Faced with their inability to connect with each other, Rebecca and Tom determine that “there is nothing else to do” but walk in the rain, which becomes “tiny tears” to her. “[T]hey both feel awkward, as if they are watched from every window, their actions exaggerated, their voices loud and shrill.” The romance of the city becomes impossible to find when they must bundle up in long underwear and heavy coats to try to ward off the cold, “aware of their numb feet and runny noses, aware of the bare trees.” The story ends with an elusive description of the couple having intercourse, Rebecca drifting away from the moment, imagining herself “borne out of this place to another.” Though she had resolved to “live in the moment,” in this moment of hoped-for impregnation, she locates herself elsewhere, trying to imagine the unborn waiting for the chance to be born. Fantasy and the reality of the moment merge in Rebecca’s final vision of a carriage containing Rebecca frequently creates fictive worlds that are more exciting and adventurous than her own.” a woman, “a mother, a daughter, a goddess,” suggesting her unborn daughter, her mother, and herself, “all of them hovering, waiting to descend, waiting to be asked.” The problem Rebecca has faced during her time in Paris is the conflict between her desire to fulfill her mother’s romantic illusions of travel and her own desire to establish roots. The merging of these three images at the close of the story suggests Rebecca’s persistent tendency to entertain the fantasy rather than take concrete steps to change her life. Here, she imagines attaining meaning through the advent of a child, meaning that eluded her in seeing Paris with her husband.
The story ends inconclusively. As she and her husband have sexual intercourse, Rebecca’s fantasy images are described, a composite of female figures in a carriage. All the images, along with babies and devils, present a notion of possibility and expectation, but what actually those images have to do with Rebecca and Tom’s future remains undetermined. The tension between desire and fulfillment remains, with Rebecca’s focus on potential.
Wendy Perkins, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Kate Walbert, Published by Gale Group, 2006