Wetherell’s short story ‘‘The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant’’ takes place in August (sometime in the 1960s) on the shores of a New England river that runs between New Hampshire and Vermont. The narrator of the story is an unnamed fourteen-year-old who is spending his summer vacation with his family at a cabin. Next door is the girl of the narrator’s dreams, seventeen-year-old Sheila Mant. The Mant family celebrates the summer with parties, which the narrator longs to join. His family is not as social as the Mants, and his parents think the Mants are too flamboyant. This does not keep the narrator from sneaking out at night to observe the festivities taking place next door, which fuels the narrator’s fantasies of capturing Sheila’s heart.
Sheila is used to a lot of attention. Though the narrator has a crush on her, he describes her as being ‘‘all but out of reach.’’ Much of the narrator’s day is spent studying Sheila, especially when she is sunbathing. From his observations the narrator believes he has correctly interpreted Sheila’s moods based on the different poses she assumes. For example, if she lies on her side with her head ‘‘propped up by her arm,’’ she is ‘‘observant.’’ But, the narrator warns, one must be careful when approaching her. According to the narrator, the best time to make contact with Sheila is while she stretches her body in preparation to dive into the river. This is Sheila’s signal that she is willing to permit a social connection.
The narrator is aware that Sheila has many suitors. For instance, he has seen the way the young men of the Dartmouth College crew team become distracted whenever they row down the river past Sheila. He suspects they are all in love with her. The narrator believes there is a difference between himself and the older suitors. They see Sheila as the essence of female innocence. The narrator, on the other hand, views her as the epitome of female sophistication.
To gain Sheila’s attention, the narrator swims across the river and back, hoping his athleticism will impress her. Unfortunately, Sheila seldom pays attention. On one occasion, when he is surprised to find her looking at him, he completes several complicated dives off the raft. His efforts still go unheeded. Rather than quashing his passion for the young girl, Sheila’s lack of attention actually increases the narrator’s longing for her.
The main focus of this short story occurs on one of the last days of August, when the narrator musters the courage to approach Sheila. Propelling himself through the bushes that separate their houses, he finds himself in the middle of a softball game. Sheila takes a long time to acknowledge him, but when she finally does, instead of asking her out the narrator tells her she is standing too far away from the base she is supposed to be defending. Only afterward does he invite her to attend a concert in a nearby town. Sheila asks if he has a car. The narrator cleverly saves himself from having to acknowledge he is too young to drive by saying he would rather go by canoe, which Sheila agrees to. The boat trip provides the gist of the story, its main themes and conflicts.
The narrator spends the next day polishing his canoe so as to further impress Sheila. He supplies pillows for Sheila to lean on, a radio, and of course his fishing rod, which is a permanent fixture on the boat. The narrator does not intend to fish during the trip downstream, but he confesses that he never goes boating without his rod. His favorite pastime, other than watching Sheila and fantasizing about her, is fishing.
After all preparations are completed, the narrator paddles in circles upon the river to ease his impatience. Out of habit he also absentmindedly baits a hook and lowers the line into the water. At eight that evening, he pulls up in front of Sheila’s house. As Sheila approaches, the narrator notices a ‘‘dubious expression’’ on her face. Before entering the canoe, Sheila suggests they take her father’s car. However, the narrator coaxes her into the boat, promising he will get her to town safely. After settling into the canoe, she looks at him at close range for the first time. The narrator is so mad with excitement that he wants to dive into the river.
As the narrator rows away from the shore, he comments about the extra paddle in the canoe, which Sheila has thus far ignored. Instead of helping him row, she takes off her shoes and dangles her feet over the edge of the canoe. As they move downstream, the narrator describes the band they are going to hear. Sheila talks about Eric Caswell, a member of the Dartmouth crew who has shown an interest in her. She says Eric will be at the concert.
Sheila expresses concern when they hear a splashing noise close to the canoe. The narrator looks and is surprised to see a big bass. It is at this point that Sheila states that ‘‘fishing’s dumb.’’ This embarrasses the narrator. His main intention is to impress Sheila. The narrator is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, he fears making himself appear ‘‘dumb in Sheila’s severe and unforgiving eyes,’’ while, on the other hand, by the flexing of his fishing pole he can tell he has caught one of the largest bass he has ever seen.
The narrator considers rowing closer to the shore and flinging his fishing pole into the bushes. He also thinks about pushing the rod over the side of the canoe, sacrificing his equipment in the name of his love for Sheila. Instead he compromises by shoving the rod in a more inconspicuous space under his legs. In this way, he hopes to keep the fish on the line without Sheila knowing.
The tension grows as the narrator realizes this could prove to be the biggest bass he will ever catch. He understands that whatever he decides, he cannot let Sheila know what he is doing. It is as if he has been given a chance to catch two of the biggest fish he has ever captured in his life—a huge bass and Sheila Mant. Though he tries his best to keep them both, he also knows he must eventually let one of them go.
While the narrator tries to figure out how to keep the fish and prevent Sheila from guessing what he is thinking, she talks about which college she wants to attend and why. Her reasons are frivolous. She prefers one school because of the opportunities to ski. She also mentions that Eric has told her that she is pretty enough to become a model. She wants to get a new hair style, something that makes her look like the 1960s actress Ann-Margret. She interrupts her monologue when she notices that the canoe is moving backward. To relieve Sheila’s concern, the narrator lies again, saying there is a strong current and they must counter it. In truth, the bass is pulling the canoe.
The narrator only half-listens to Sheila. His attention is focused on his secret attempts to land the bass. The canoe has reached the point where they must take a side stream. Once they turn, the narrator will have to maneuver around a sandbar that lies under a narrow bridge. This will provide an opportunity for the fish to escape. In the meantime, Sheila is talking about wanting to keep her skin as white as Jacqueline Kennedy’s.
While the narrator reflects on his luck at keeping the fish, he is caught off guard by Sheila’s beauty. He is consumed by the sight of her. His concentration is disturbed. Before him is the girl of his dreams. Behind him is the bass. The narrator has reached a critical point. The dock for the concert is just a few yards ahead. If he paddles to the shore, he knows the bass will escape. If he stands up in the canoe and starts pulling in the line, he will have landed the prized fish. Suddenly he sees Sheila stretch. This motion emphasizes the shape of her body and makes the narrator all but forget about the fish. He pulls out a pocket knife and cuts the fishing line. As the fishing rod loses its bend, he feels a sudden attack of nausea sweep over him.
The story concludes quickly. The narrator remembers little else about that night except that he may have danced with Sheila one or two times. When the band is finished playing, Sheila tells the narrator she is going home with Eric Caswell.
To conclude the story the narrator confesses that his obsession with Sheila faded rapidly. The same was not true for that bass. The fish, the narrator confides, continues to haunt him. ‘‘There would be other Sheila Mants,’’ he says. There would also be other fish. He tells his readers that he ‘‘never made the same mistake again.’’
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.