During his lifetime, Richard Yates was read and respected by other writers to a much greater degree than he was read by the general public. His 1961 novel, Revolutionary Road , sold well, and over the years, it continued to be widely known, mostly due to its being assigned in literature classes. But from 1961 until Yates died in 1992, his literary career was a long slide into oblivion. In 2001, though, The Collected Stories of Richard Yates was published, sparking admiration from all corners of the literary world. “The Canal” first appeared in print in this book, though many of the other stories from the collection had been previously published. Esquire magazine named the collection one of the “Best Books of 2001,” noting, “It’s simply criminal that [these stories] were out of print so long.” Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, writing in the Library Journal , warns readers that Yates’s worldview can be bleak but tells them out-right that “Despite the general pessimism of the stories, they never seem contrived or self-indulgent.” She goes on to recommend the collection for all academic and larger public libraries. In Booklist , Brad Hooper goes even further with his praise, asserting that “No public library catering to short story lovers should be without this career-encompassing collection of the work of an important American story writer.” He ends his review by noting that Yates “deserves a wider audience among contemporary fiction readers.” The admiration for this book is best summed up by John de Falbe, who wrote a long review of it for The Spectator . “Though many aspects of the world he describes have gone, the stories transcend time,” de Falbe writes. “They are about loneliness and loss, failure and dreams, dignity and grace. They are tough, unsentimental, compassionate and beautiful in their apparent simplicity.” Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature at two schools in Illinois. In this essay, Kelly argues that the independence of thought shown by Betty Miller marks this as a story against gender stereotyping.
From the perspective of the twenty-first century, Richard Yates’s short story “The Canal” offers a look at the post-World War II years that is both familiar and revealing, particularly in the ways that Yates treats the subject of gender relations. There is a tendency in the early 2000s to over-generalize the roles of women in the 1950s, to see their place in society as auxiliary at best, and Yates’s story plays to that perspective by focusing on the men. Still, his female characters are not just extras in a drama that hardly concerns them but are indeed primary forces in giving meaning to the war story (or stories) that are considered in “The Canal.” The main focus of this story is the cocktail party conversation between two men, Lew Miller and Tom Brace, about their experiences during the war, especially in a particular conflict in which they both took part some seven years earlier. Brace was in the thick of enemy gunfire and had the chance to distinguish himself as a soldier, killing several Germans, winning a medal and probably saving the lives of some of the men who served under him, though he is too modest to say so: he is the one who initiates the conversation and drives it forward with his insatiable curiosity about events of that day. Miller has mostly suppressed the events of that conflict: prodded by Brace, he recalls losing equipment, becoming separated from his squad in the dark, and being mercilessly reprimanded by his squad leader.
It is as important to the story that Brace’s war experience be idealized as it is that Miller’s be as humiliating as possible, because this is, at its core, the story of Miller’s looking back at a certain moment which he would rather not revisit. His humiliation is rounded out by the presence of women. The wives listen to their husbands’ conversation with apparent awe and admiration, even though what Miller is willing to say varies noticeably from what he thinks about the night at the canal. Both women prompt the men to tell their war stories and express fascination about an aspect of life that they never lived and never will. Though they are peripheral to the main thrust of the story, Yates develops their characters subtly.
Nancy Brace sets the standard for wifely behavior in this story, taking on the role of subordinate to her husband, acting as his assistant and biggest admirer. In this way, she comes close to the stereotypical 1950s wife. Nancy reminds Brace of details he has missed, and she marvels at his feats. She compliments his storytelling ability as being so varied that she could listen to his tales over and again and being so vivid that she feels she has lived his war experience. It is all nonsense, of course, as she proves by describing the experience of combat as “marvelous.” If the whole conversation that “The Canal” centers on is just one long display of Tom Brace on his “luck” night at the canal, then it is a conversation that could not proceed without Nancy as the audience.
In return for her support, Brace treats Nancy with dismissive indulgence. With such a complimentary audience, it is perhaps easy for him to take her for granted. When the maid does not come at his summoning, Nancy fetches drinks for the couples, for which he thanks her, but abruptly. When she brings out that his actions earned Brace a Silver Star, he uses the opportunity to underline at her expense his own presumed disinterest in the honor. He points out that a medal is a silly thing to care about, winking at Miller and asking patronizingly, “Isn’t that just like a woman?” Though Nancy says that her husband’s repetitious war stories are meaningful to her, he assumes that, because she is a woman, she can never grasp their meaning.
Throughout the story, Betty Miller’s behavior seems to parallel that of Nancy Brace. She, too, tries to build up her husband’s military career, even though she has far less to work with and is met with resistance from Miller. The story begins with Betty cutting into Tom Brace’s monologue about his war experiences to point out that Lew Miller was in the war too and has his own tales to tell. When Miller discusses his service, she attempts to clarify for the Braces that he was an officer, but he shoots down her clarification by saying that he was only an officer stateside and served as a private when he was in combat. As Miller sees it, she glorifies his military career precisely because he never talks about it, having built what he thinks is “a special kind of women’s-magazine romanticism” around it. Unlike Brace, who relies on his wife’s encouragement, Miller discourages his wife’s promoting him.
Yates presents Betty Miller as a complex character with too many contradictions for her to be easily interpreted as either building her identity around her husband’s experiences or not. Throughout the story, she is generous with her praise for Tom Brace, The fact that Betty Miller is so free with her praise for Brace indicates that she does not see this as a competition at all, that she is an impartial audience, an independent thinker.” often blurting out her admiration for his story that he clearly intends his audience to admire. If she sees this conversation as a competition between Brace and Miller, where one’s achievement attempts to overshadow the other’s, then she would have a natural interest in tempering her enthusiasm: the flip side of her attempts to get Miller to open up about his war experiences may be to get Brace to say less about his own. The fact that Betty Miller is so free with her praise for Brace indicates that she does not see this as a competition at all, that she is an impartial audience, an independent thinker.
On the other hand, Betty lets go of her social mask once the Millers are in a taxicab, driving away from the Braces. In private conversation with her husband, she pronounces that Nancy and Tom Brace are conceited. This comment may indicate that she feels hurt about losing the competition on which husband served more nobly in the war: if so, it would mean that her own ego is tied to Lew Miller’s achievements, affirming the 1950s stereotype of the dependent woman. Her outburst in the cab may also be an invitation to her husband, intending to draw out his own anger. If she believes that Miller has been waiting all night to badmouth the Braces with her, she proves to be mistaken: she apparently does not understand him well at all.
It is clear that Yates has given Lew and Betty Miller separate interests, and, in doing so, he has subverted traditional gender expectations. A traditional wife could be thought to be, like Nancy Brace, supportive of her husband, building her ego as she builds his and losing status when he loses social ground. To some extent, the Millers have that kind of relationship, too. They can also be understood as a conflicted, mismatched couple, where one partner gains self-esteem by belittling the other. If Betty Miller were angry with her husband, disappointed when he does nothing to promote himself, their marriage might be seen to fit this formula. Instead, their marriage is a mixture of both: she wishes the best for him, she dislikes his competitor, but she does not hold Miller’s defeat in the social arena against him. Yates has made their relationship too complex and real for that. Understanding Betty Miller is a bit easier because readers are also presented with Nancy Brace, who is a standard for loyal wifely behavior. Even so, Betty Miller is not an easy person to understand. Because this story focuses on Lew Miller, his memories and his thoughts, there is enough temptation to not try to decipher Betty at all, and the fact that she does not fit into standard patterns or expectations discourages getting to know her. A clue about Betty might be provided in the drunken words of the party’s hostess, who repeats, thinking that she is clever, that they should be preparing for “the next war” instead of focusing on the last. As a woman, Betty Miller is as detached from World War II as Lew Miller wishes, unsuccessfully, that he could be himself. She does give a fair effort toward understanding it, either through her own husband’s stories or through Brace’s, but finds herself unable to feel drawn in as Nancy Brace does. That leaves her looking toward the future in a way that her husband does not, giving her an independent identity that in some sense subverts the stereotype of the good wife.
David Kelly, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Richard Yates, Published by Gale Group, 2006