Yates dramatizes in this story how individuals remember shared experiences (perhaps especially of war) in separate ways and how those different ways of remembering determine or express the person’s sense of self. Tom Brace selects from all his military experience in order to shape his story. Soldiers have many experiences in military service, but only some of them offer material for good stories in later civilian life. Tom’s story about the night at the canal conveys a picture of himself as lucky, agile, and courageous. Now an account executive at an advertising agency, a salesman, Tom uses his charisma to draw attention to himself and to influence others. His war story in a sense advertises him as a certain kind of man, an image he wants to project. His repeating his favorite war stories helps enliven the present situation, where he dominates a conversation at a cocktail party. That he drinks a lot at that party suggests he may use alcohol to insulate himself and reduce his inhibitions at the same time. It is implied that the Braces and the Millers do not know each other very well, and keeping a conversation going with strangers may be uncomfortable or difficult. Lew Miller’s memories of that night at the canal similarly reinforce his sense of himself, and yet in the present at the cocktail party, what he remembers of that night emphasizes what he wishes no one would see in him. In addition to showing how complex a given military action is and how people engaged in it may have very different tasks and perceptions of it, Miller’s memory reinforces his sense of his own physical inferiority and timid personality. Miller is a man more suited for desk work; he is ill-suited for manual work or military action. He is not athletic or agile. What he remembers of that night convinces him that he lacks those traits traditionally associated, particularly in romantic literature and in the movies, with combat. In each case, the memory of the man is an expression of his self-concept. The tour of military service entails many experiences across months, even years of service, and the selected memories work to highlight the man’s positive sense of self or to emphasize the man’s sense of personal inadequacy. Either way, memory of past performance contributes to the way these men present themselves in a social situation.
Self-aggrandizement is the act of exaggerating one’s own importance. In this story, to some extent, Tom Brace is self-aggrandizing when he tells his war story which shows himself in a positive light, when he dominates the conversation and yet appears to eschew compliments that come from his wife and Betty Miller. The story Brace tells suggests that he was heroic in combat. At the canal, while Miller recalls having muddled across a bridge in the dark, Brace remembers how he and his squad rowed across in boats, in direct artillery range. Brace was in the first boat. They were fired upon when they were about halfway across. The men in his boat led the assault once the canal was crossed, with a machine gunner armed with a Browning automatic rifle (B.A.R.) keeping the enemy distracted while Brace moved close enough to throw a hand grenade at the German guns firing on them. Though some of the men in his squad drowned in the crossing and others were shot, quite a few probably were saved by Brace’s being able to throw a grenade and take out the enemy artillery. Luckily for Brace now, his wife is the one brings up his being awarded a Silver Star for his deed. Clearly, Brace has an ongoing fascination with the war. He initiates the discussion with Lew Miller and specifically recalls troop locations and gun calibers. When his wife says, “I never get tired of Tom’s war stories,” it is clear that she has heard many stories, often repeated. The insistence on reliving the time when he proved himself to be heroic may be a sign that Brace needs attention and approval, but Yates also includes evidence to suggest an alternate interpretation, that he is not needy at all. He is generous in sharing the glory for his successful assault at the canal with the B.A.R. man who provided him cover, emphasizing what a good soldier that man was. That in itself might be false humility, but Brace has been professionally successful since the war, so the question remains about why he needs to relive old victories. He is athletic, handsome, and confident. He generously runs out into the rain to hail one taxi for the Millers and then another for him and his wife. He seems self-confident, but his continual return to his wartime success may hint that something is missing in his present life for which he is compensating. In any event, in the story, Betty Miller has the final word: he is conceited and self-aggrandizing.
The Subjectivity of Interpretation
This story suggests that interpretation is subjective. Readers see the memory that Lew Miller has but does not share at the cocktail party, a memory that shows him in a negative light. But Yates also provides details about Miller’s past which Miller does not emphasize, which might modify Miller’s judgment of himself. For example, Miller dwells on the anger of his commanding officer, on feeling demeaned by him in front of the other soldiers. He is ashamed of the small failures, his losing his raincoat, his getting separated from his men, and over all, he remembers Kavic’s caustic criticism. He does not dwell on the fact that his men also caught direct artillery hits, which caused them to roll off the road into the ditches and plausibly contributed to their line getting broken. Then, too, Miller had spent “most of his service at a public relations desk in North Carolina” before he was transferred into the infantry in 1944, toward the end of the war. Desk work for three years did not prepare him for the intense physical strain of infantry combat. Also, Kavic may be in charge at age nineteen because he has seen more action than Miller has before the night at the canal. Like Brace, Miller remembers good things about his fellow soldiers, how a lieutenant spoke politely to him, how the men at the wall gave each other a hand as they climbed over it. But these details do not work to sabotage Miller’s self-esteem, and so he does not dwell on them. Similarly, in the untold memories Brace has, there may be more than a few that do not show him in a heroic light, yet those details of his military experience he chooses not to describe, or he may have selectively forgotten what he does not want to remember. Over the years, memory fashions the stories, refining, deleting, all to serve the teller’s purpose and as an expression of the teller’s subjective view of the past and of himself.
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