Tom Brace is amazed to hear that Miller’s outfit had the leisure to sleep, since his canal crossing put him right into artillery fire. Nancy Brace, Tom’s wife, asks if his killing the artillery soldiers earned him a Silver Star. Brace dismisses Nancy’s question with a wink, patronizing her supposedly superficial focus on the decoration, but Betty Miller gushes that he probably “should have gotten several Silver Stars.” Of his success as the grenades he threw hit their target, Tom says, “I want to tell you, I’ve never been so lucky.” The conversation is interrupted by the hostess who jokes about preparing for the next war, a joke that she repeats several times in a bout of drunken silliness. The Millers and the Braces use this disruption as an excuse to say goodnight and leave the party. The men retrieve their coats, and Lew Miller feels embarrassed about his own, noting that it looks dirty and wrinkled in Tom Brace’s hand.
The rainy night makes Betty Miller fear they will not find a taxicab. Able to save the moment, Brace leaps forward into the rain and hails one, showing himself to be, as he was in his war stories, competent and in control. He tells the Millers to take that cab, that he will find another one, and, while they are still objecting, Brace runs off up the block to hail the next cab. While they are riding home, Betty Miller talks about Tom Brace. Although she hung on his story and complimented him while he was telling it, in the cab she says that she thinks both of the Braces are conceited. She then turns on her husband, criticizing him for letting Tom Brace “ eclipse ” him for the whole evening and pointing out that Lew always lets others outshine him. She is totally unaware of all the thoughts her husband has had during the party. The story ends as Lew tells his wife, “for God’s sake shut up.” By contrast to her husband’s powerful personality, Nancy’s personality does not develop very clearly in this story. However, she admits she can imagine his war experiences because he is able to describe them so vividly. This statement cannot be taken too seriously, though, because Nancy’s understanding shows nothing close to an understanding of the horrors of warfare: several times, she comments on how “marvelous” it must have been.
Tom Brace treats his wife’s support in a fond but belittling manner. When she makes a point of mentioning the Silver Star that he won, he acts as if her interest in the medal misses the more serious aspects of the story, attributing her lack of understanding to the fact that she is a woman. During much of the conversation, Nancy is gone to retrieve drinks for both couples, having heard Tom’s stories over and over already, but she still acts upon her return as if she would have been very interested in hearing the parts that she missed. She is a doting wife who is taken for granted by a husband who has lived a successful life and expects the best.
Handsome, athletic, Tom Brace is one of the two main characters of this story. He is the force that drives it, as his curiosity about Lew Miller’s war experience and his willingness to prod Miller for information about it forces Miller to remember details that he has suppressed for years.
Brace is a forceful, tactless man. He is an account executive for an advertising firm, a salesman, which indicates that he is an outgoing person who is used to convincing people to do what he wants.
Yates implies that Brace is something of a boor, monopolizing the conversation with stories of his former glory, reveling in the bygone days when he was a war hero. At the end of the story, Betty Miller calls him “conceited,” though there is no way of telling whether she is giving her true assessment of him or is just trying to build up her husband, who pales in comparison to Brace. More telling is the fact that at the start of the story the subject is already on the night at the canal, even though, at that point, no one knows that Brace and Miller both experienced that particular event: Brace has been telling his army stories even though he has no reason to believe that they are relevant to anyone else in the conversation.
Brace is presented as having a streak of genuine selflessness in him. When telling of his attack on the German gunmen that threatened his squad, he gives ample credit to the machine gunner who provided him with cover. When he runs into the rain to capture a cab, a feat which had just been pronounced impossible by Betty Miller, he chivalrously turns it over to the Millers, and when they try to reject his generosity, he cuts the conversation short by running off to hail another cab.
Yates also shows that, despite his good looks, confidence, and heroism, Brace is fixated on the war. He is obsessive about the details of Miller’s experience, focusing on the calibers of guns and the type of resistance that was being put forward further up the canal from him. When Miller gives the number of the outfit he served in, Brace is able to recall exactly where that outfit was situated during the canal crossing, which Miller himself is unable to do. It is clear that Brace has studied the details of that maneuver, that he has thought a lot about the whole war, quite possibly to confirm the difficulty that he himself overcame and describes so humbly.
Near the end of the story, the conversation about the canal crossing is interrupted when the party’s hostess joins her guests. She is drunk and jokes several times about the pointlessness of talking about the last war when there is always the next war to be planned.
Lew Miller recalls being reprimanded several times by Kavic, his squad’s leader. Yates describes Kavic as a “scrawny, intensely competent, nineteen years old,” implying that in any social situation other than the army, Kavic would be considered Miller’s inferior by far.
Not only does Kavic shout at Miller, but he does so with exhausted patience, as if he finds it difficult to believe that anyone could be as inept or mindless as Miller is. He berates Miller for losing his raincoat and for losing his way in the dark. Kavic overreacts to events that actually come out all right in the end, and Miller is both indignant and shamed by having to take reprimands from such an unimposing authority. Yet, Miller still realizes that, on some level, Kavic is right: he should not lose equipment or get lost. It would be easy for Miller to forget his own shortcomings during the fighting by blaming the army for making a boy like Kavic his superior, but instead Miller accepts responsibility for his actions. That said, Kavic is contrasted with other soldiers and a lieutenant who act and speak politely to Miller.
Betty Miller is aware that her husband, Lew, did not see much action during the war, but she is also protective of his reputation. Therefore, she looks for ways in which to build up his self-esteem. The story opens with her interrupting a war story by Tom Brace to ask if the division Brace is describing is the same one in which Miller served. Though it is not, they find that Miller’s division was at the same action Brace is describing, though on the periphery of the attack. Betty’s failed attempt to connect Lew to Brace’s story serves to emphasize the contrast between Brace’s “lucky” heroics and Miller’s recollection of his own awkward, plodding functionality. During the conversation, Betty draws out details about Tom Brace’s experiences at the canal, asking him about his actions and exclaiming, ” at particularly dangerous moments in his tale. In the cab on the way home, though, she denounces both Tom and his wife as “those damn conceited Brace people,” and she berates her husband for allowing them to “ eclipse ” him. Betty may actually be interested in Tom Brace’s exploits, only pretending to be dismissive of him later, to show her husband that she is not impressed by the other man’s actions. Or she may actually have found his war stories as irritating as her own husband’s self-deprecating reserve.
The story is told from Lew Miller’s perspective, including his memories of the canal crossing which he does not verbalize. Miller is a copywriter for an advertising agency, working at a creative but unglamorous job. At the cocktail party, in conversation with Tom Brace, an account executive at the agency, and listening to his dramatic telling of a war story, Miller is forced to remember his own version of that story, the one he experienced himself. While the one veteran enjoys recalling his “lucky” advance across the canal, Lew Miller would prefer not to revisit the humiliating and scary experience he had in the same advance. In the army, Miller served mostly in a public relations squad stationed in North Carolina. Late in World War II, he was sent to Europe. As Brace tells his war story, Betty Miller tries to introduce Lew Miller’s own service and make it sound as if his military experience is comparable, an effort that has the opposite effect on her husband. In Europe, Miller served as a private, a rifleman replacement. One vivid memory of the day and night at the canal is that he lost his raincoat that afternoon, and he had to suffer the indignity of being given a patronizing reprimand by the nineteen-year-old squad leader, who talked to him as if he were a fool or a child. While other soldiers at the canal, like Tom Brace, would remember charging into enemy gunfire, Miller remembers the confusion under fire of trying to follow the man in front of him in the night.
While other soldiers were responsible for killing the enemy, his squad only had to deliver communications wire. While Brace was able to keep his wits about him enough to make a “lucky” throw that kills a German gunner, Miller is distracted enough by a soldier’s cries to lose contact with his squad, which prompted another belittling reprimand from the squad leader when he rejoined them. As a result of this cocktail party, Miller shrivels into himself with self-consciousness. He notices how handsome and athletic Brace is; when Brace holds Miller’s topcoat out to him, the coat itself takes on his poor self-esteem, looking wrinkled and dirty in his hand. In the cab on the ride home, Betty gives him a chance to salvage his self-esteem by belittling Brace as a conceited bore, but Miller refuses to go along with her. Instead, he tells his wife to “shut up.”
Shane is in front of Lew Miller in line as they advanced toward the canal. Miller could just barely keep sight of Shane, and, when a loud wail from an injured soldier distracted him, he turned back to find that he had lost track of Shane, severing his connection to his squad.
Wilson is the assistant squad leader, after Kavic, a somewhat ridiculous authority figure. He is overweight, a farmer from Arkansas, not exactly the kind of keen military mind that inspires confidence. Unlike Kavic, Wilson is not belligerent toward the troops under him: he seems to have no particular agenda in mind, and instead shows himself to be just following Kavic’s orders. When Miller runs into Wilson at the far side of the canal, Wilson does not reprimand him for having gotten separated, but later he brings him an order that he is to see Kavic, who does the reprimanding.
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