Although Ochsner’s first collection of stories, Necessary Grace to Fall , won literary awards, it attracted little attention from reviewers. This is not unusual for a first collection from a young, unknown writer. However, Ochsner’s second collection of stories, People I Wanted to Be (2005), did attract some notice. Interestingly, many of the comments of the reviewers about these stories might equally be applied to “The Necessary Grace to Fall.” The reviewer Publishers Weekly , for example, describes Ochsner’s characters as “a host of oddballs whose touchingly resilient hopes and small leaps of faith fly in the face of almost certain disappointment.” This well describes Howard’s sudden and unexpected moment of grace at the end of the story, set against the accumulated tensions and disappointments of his life. The reviewer also mentions as a notable feature of Ochsner’s stories, “the tension between small, improbable miracles and the damp, chilly world in which they suddenly occur,” which likewise might be applied to “The Necessary Grace to Fall.” Ochsner’s character Howard can again be recognized in the following comment made by Gillian Engberg in a review of People I Wanted to Be , for Booklist : “Ochsner’s flawed, wholly sympathetic characters miraculously stumble into small moments, shaped with a delicious sense of the absurd, which connect them to a world that’s magical, merciful, and infinite.” In England’s Guardian , reviewer Maya Jaggi notes that Ochsner’s stories typically end in optimism rather than despair, and her comment also can be taken as applying to “The Necessary Grace to Fall”: “Despite, or because of, the insistent presence of death, these stories end on a sudden high, in intimations of flight, or stomach-fluttering hope.” Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on contemporary literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses Ochsner’s characterization of her protagonist and the way she crafts his moment of transformation at the end of the story.
Many of Ochsner’s short stories, including “The Necessary Grace to Fall,” are informed by a spiritual vision that offers moments of unexpected redemption to troubled characters. Ochsner’s commitment to an optimistic view of the possibilities latent in even the most despairing of lives is an unusual, some would say refreshing, quality in a young American writer of literary short stories. She is no Raymond Carver, committed to a relentlessly bleak view of human life and human nature. Although she does not turn a blind eye to the sadness of life and the small hells that people create for themselves, and subjects such as death, suicide, violence, and terminal illness feature quite often in her stories, it seems as if she is looking always for the moment when the dark door opens, the clouds part, the oppressive weight is lifted, and a pure beam of light pours into the world. Howard—poor, well meaning, mediocre— Howard in “The Necessary Grace to Fall,” is a case in point. There are so many things wrong with Howard’s life that it would hard to list them all. A bad marriage and a boring job would probably top the list and would be enough to drive stronger men than Howard to distraction. Howard is probably in early middle age, but the years have already worn him down. He is an odd, lonely man, apparently with no love or affection in his life, who longs for someone to show him kindness. He likes to perform acts of kindness himself mainly because “He desperately hoped his good intentions would bring back to him some small act of kindness in return, he didn’t care how small.” There is a world of rejection and pain in that last phrase. Howard is like a starving man who would be overwhelmed by gratitude if someone were to take pity on him and toss him a crust of bread. Perhaps not surprisingly, Howard does not feel in control of his life. He is not even in control of himself. He decides to do one thing but ends up doing another, for reasons he does not understand. But in spite of all these failings, Ochsner ensures that Howard wins the reader’s sympathy. She treats him rather gently, as if she likes him and wants to help him out. The more confident characters, Leonard and Carla, are treated more ruthlessly.
They are hard, with firm ideas about the way life is and should be, and untroubled by any deep thoughts or speculations. In this sense, they are more limited than Howard, who at least has an inquiring mind, and Ochsner enjoys a little satire at their expense. But Howard she has marked for redemption from the beginning. He is a little man who would do good in life if he knew how, so Ochsner, as author, allows herself the license to play God and decides to give him the boost he needs.
The key to Howard’s eventual moment of salvation is contained in the unusual, expansive images of inner and outer space that are placed at regular intervals in the story. They are always tied to some physical sensation that Howard is feeling. It is as if something inside him is tired of being cramped up in a small physical body with five limited senses and wants to experience freedom. He wants to shed the weight of physical existence and experience the lightness of a new mode of being, although he does not conceptualize it in this way, since he has no firm idea of what he is looking for. These images can either be interpreted as a longing for mystical, spiritual experience or a longing for death and the dissolution of the body. Ochsner does not make it clear until the end of the story which interpretation she intends.
The first time the space metaphor appears is early in the story, when he is first disappointed with the routine nature of his job: “Howard’s shoulders slumped and he could feel a space widening in his rib cage.” Having seeded the story with this image, Ochsner works with it until it seems to signify something transcendent, a state of being without boundaries that is quite the opposite of little Howard’s constant petty fears and imaginings. When Howard thinks of the family of the dead woman, for example Another example of the space image comes when Howard presses on his rib cage, “lightly fingering the spaces between the bones, feeling as spacious inside as before, if not spacier.” As in the earlier passage, this is immediately followed by the image of the infinite expanse of the sky: “Outside, the sky was a cloudless blue, so pure Howard had to look away.” By dint of repetition, Ochsner will not allow the reader to miss the significance of these images. They seem to hammer home the message that the small human self that is contained in one human body is not the entire being of the person. There are other states of being possible that substitute freedom for enclosure, infinity for the finite—or perhaps these images merely signify death, the dissolution of all things, and escape from the heavy responsibilities of being human. There is a parallel in Ochsner’s use of these expansive, inner-outer images in the work of Leo Tolstoy, in his novel War and Peace . In that novel, one of the main characters, the Russian aristocrat Pierre Bezuhov, is held prisoner by the French and is forced to take part in Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. One night under the stars, he sees the absurdity of the situation, realizing that his “immortal soul” cannot be confined in this way. There is a full moon, and as he gazes up at the stars and the vastness of the sky, he thinks, “And all that is mine, all that is in me, and all that is . And they took all that and shut it up in a shed barricaded with planks.” He smiles and lies down contentedly to sleep, having realized that the essential self, who he in reality is, cannot be enclosed by anything or imprisoned by anyone. This seems to be close to the experience to which Ochsner is pushing Howard—the breaking of the bonds of the finite. And yet when that image of inner and outer expansive space occurs once again, as the story builds to its climax, it seems to carry another connotation. Howard arrives at the bridge from which Svea Johnson fell to her death and wonders what she felt at that moment. He asks himself, “Did she give herself over to the collapsing arms of the air, to all that space within and without, a falling between the ribs and then here between the arms, between fingertips and sky?” Here those images seem to be associated with imminent death rather than with the expansion of consciousness.
And so in the end, Howard turns his back on those moments when he seems to expand beyond his body. It seems that those experiences are, after all, more the expression of a secret longing for death and annihilation, the desire not to be, than an intimation of potential spiritual freedom. He realizes now that he must ground himself in a more firm appreciation of life in the here-and-now, with an awareness of what he can contribute to it. He must stay in his body, so to speak, rather than encourage experiences that lead him away from it. Significantly, in that moment, he finds himself thinking of someone other than himself. He becomes outer rather than inner-directed, thinking of how he might be able to help eight-year-old Kevin. The mystery of the infinite possibilities in life also takes hold of him, indicating that in this moment the smallness of his selfhood no longer defines him completely. He can reach beyond it to a way of transcendence not through the cultivation of unusual psychological or spiritual experiences but through a more simple wonder, engagement, and fascination at the miracle of continually unfolding life.
Bryan Aubrey, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Gina Ochsner, Published by Gale Group, 2006