In Wetherell’s short story ‘‘The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant,’’ the narrator yearns for two things in the summer of his fourteenth year: fishing and Sheila Mant. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning short story author Robert Olen Butler, good writing revolves around the yearning of a main character. In his book From Where You Dream, a collection of lectures about the art of writing fiction, Butler examines this sense of yearning, which he claims is necessary for developing believable characterization. There are various forms of yearning. In popular fiction meant to entertain, the protagonist might yearn for a woman or a man, want power or money, or desire an adventure in some exotic location. But in literary fiction, which is written on a deeper, more thoughtful level, the protagonist’s desires are ‘‘on the order of: I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe, I yearn to connect to the other.’’ Both levels of yearning is what drives the plot forward. As readers might conclude, it is the narrator’s desire that provides the momentum for the plot in Wetherell’s short story. The question is not whether the narrator yearns but rather how deeply that yearning is felt. Are the narrator’s desires superficial, making this story one of pure entertainment, or does the narrator yearn for something more substantial? Does the young protagonist merely want to catch a fish or win a date with his female neighbor or does he long for something more meaningful?
Wetherell’s short story begins on a simple note. The young protagonist declares his strong attraction to two things: fishing and Sheila Mant. The setting is one of summer warmth, with a lazy river that passes in front of the vacation cottages. Sheila, who lives next door, has a family that is nothing like the narrator’s. The difference enchants the young protagonist. The sounds, sights, and revelry of their late-night parties draw him in—at least as a hidden observer. He longs to be a part of his neighbor’s world. He yearns to gain entrance through the middle child of the family, namely, Sheila. She is three years older than he is, which puts her almost out of reach. But this does not dissuade him.
The narrator tells the reader what he knows about Sheila. All of his information is gathered from afar. Most of the details of what he knows he has made up, arriving at conclusions without verifying them. As far as the reader knows, the narrator has never spoken to Sheila. She has hardly looked his way. At the beginning of this story, Sheila is not much more than the narrator’s fantasy. The protagonist knows Sheila only from the external factors of her life. He watches. He observes how she moves. He notices how other men react to her. At this point he is attracted to Sheila based on how she looks, how she carries herself. There is little evidence that the narrator even knows what her voice sounds like. He has no sense of what she thinks or believes. He does not know what she likes or yearns for. Sheila is more of an object for the narrator than a person.
Because the narrator barely knows Sheila and because he is young and probably inexperienced in the realm of dating, he reacts to her superficially. He tries to impress her with the beauty of his swim strokes as he pulls himself back and forth across the river. When that does not win her attention, he draws nearer and dives off the raft. This is the most he can muster, for he still does not have enough courage to talk to her. That does not happen until the summer is about to end. In late August, he finally confronts her. To the readers’s surprise—and maybe to his own astonishment—the narrator’s first words are to tell Sheila she is not playing her position correctly in a family softball game. It is obvious from the narrator’s comments that he knows how to play softball. This knowledge encourages him to speak up and offer advice. His knowing the rules and tactics of the game makes him feel at home with himself. So he speaks with authority. But then he tells the first of many lies. He tells Sheila that he understands why she prefers playing at a distance from the base, when, in fact, he does not understand this at all. These actions demonstrate that although he is confident about the ball game, he lacks courage when it comes to Sheila. He wants to win her like a trophy. To do so, he thinks, he must become someone else, so he tells her things he does not believe.
Sheila agrees to go on a date with the narrator. Since readers are not privy to Sheila’s thoughts, they do not know why she has agreed to do so. In the course of their traveling down the river to the concert, Sheila provides no sign that she is interested in the narrator. Though the narrator appears unconcerned by her lack of attention, readers can sense it. She does not direct even one question at the narrator to gather information about him. It is easy to conclude that Sheila’s yearnings for the narrator are nil. Sheila is clearly not propelling this story. She is only indirectly involved in the plot. She is merely the object of the narrator’s yearnings.
All eyes are on the narrator throughout the rest of the story. He has so much desire welling up inside him that he is about to burst. But how can readers define and classify the nature of his yearning? The first type has just been mentioned: he wants Sheila. This is a boy-wants-girl type of yearning. Though the narrator is fixated on Sheila, she could be almost any of a thousand teenage girls that he could desire. Since he knows so little about her, another pretty girl could walk by, show him a little attention, and he might easily drop Sheila for the new girl. The fish, however, is a different story. The narrator knows a lot more about fish than he does about Sheila Mant. He is well aware of the fish’s habitat, drive for survival, and manner of fighting to get free. He has not only observed similar fish but has practiced various ways to catch them. Every time the fish takes a different tack, the narrator counters successfully. He outmaneuvers the fish, knowing when to let the fish run the line and when to reel him in. Though this creates confidence, it would be hard to conclude that the narrator’s yearning to catch the fish goes much deeper than his desire to win Sheila. However, there is a slight difference between them. With the fish the narrator can be himself. There is no deceit involved. The narrator is free to express himself without restriction. This makes the yearning more real and possibly a little deeper. However, there is something else going on in this story.
If Wetherell’s story were only about a young boy trying to catch a fish as well as a date with a young girl, it would be a rather superficial tale. However, the story captures the reader’s attention on a deeper level. Why is that? Why does the narrator lament losing the fish more than he regrets the loss of Sheila? Robert Olen Butler suggests that readers and writers should attempt to capture the deepest level of a character’s yearning. Looking beyond the fish and the seventeen-year-old Sheila, readers might find that the narrator is really searching for himself. One reason he might have been more disappointed about the loss of the fish could be that in his struggle to catch the bass he was discovering more about how he truly felt. Fishing provided a more natural setting for the narrator. The battle with the fish was more real. On the other hand, everything about Sheila was either false or a fantasy. ‘‘You’re a funny kid, you know that?,’’ Sheila states at the end of the story. This appears to offend the narrator more than anything else she has done or said. The narrator finds these words accusatory, as if there were something wrong in his being himself. The mistake that the narrator refers to in the last sentence does not reflect on either the loss of the fish or the loss of his crush on Sheila. Rather, it seems to imply that the mistake he made that night was that he not only sacrificed the fish for Sheila but also betrayed a part of himself. That is his deepest yearning in this story: to learn to know himself better.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – W. D. Wetherell – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.