Showing 41 - 50 of 53 annotations contributed by Holmes, Martha Stoddard
An American man and "a girl" sit drinking beer in a bar by a train station in northern Spain making self-consciously ironic, brittle small talk. The woman comments that the hills look like white elephants (hence the story's title). Eventually, the two discuss an operation, which the man earnestly reassures her is "awfully simple . . . not really an operation at all . . . all perfectly natural" (726).
The woman is unconvinced, questioning "what will we do afterward," but says she will have the operation because "I don't care about me" (727). A few moments later, however, she avers that they "could" have everything and go anywhere, suddenly as earnest as he had been earlier. When the man agrees that they "can" do these things, however, the woman now says no, they can't, her change in verb tense suggesting that the possible lives they once could have pursued (and produced) are even now, before any firm decision has been spoken, irrevocably out of reach. When the man says that he will go along with whatever she wants, the woman asks him to "please please please please please please please stop talking" or she will scream. The train arrives during this impasse, and once the bags are loaded, the woman, smiling brightly, insists she feels fine.
Wealthy American widows Alida Slade and Grace Ansley have taken their two marriageable daughters on a Continental tour. As the story opens, the older women linger at a restaurant with a view of the Forum while their daughters leave for an unchaperoned outing. The women talk of how carefully their mothers guarded them, and how their own mothers were in turn warned of Roman fever to keep them in at night.
Alida pushes the talk back to their girlhood, and Grace’s illness after a nighttime sightseeing trip; she reveals her knowledge that Grace had really gone to the Forum to meet Alida’s fiancé, Delphin Slade. Impelled by a mixture of jealousy, guilt, and vengeful satisfaction, Alida declares that she, not Delphin, wrote the letter summoning Grace to the tryst. This initial crisis is followed by a much more powerful one when Grace makes her own revelations about that night at the Forum.
Kate, a doctoral student, has chosen to move far away from the small town in which she grew up and in which her widowed mother (a school superintendent) and brother (an insurance man) still live. Kate's life is solitary, punctuated by unsatisfactory and transitory sexual relationships with men; she has headaches and wonders if "there were an agent in her body, a secret in her blood making ready to work against her" (p. 180).
While her mother disagrees with Kate's life choices, their long-distance relationship is sisterly, playful, and intimate. Kate sends her mother Valentine's Day cards, "a gesture of compensatory remembrance" since her father's death six years earlier (177). One year Kate forgets to send the card; soon after, her mother is suddenly hospitalized for tests that reveal a brain tumor.
Kate's brother insists that if she wants to come home, she must keep quiet about the likelihood of the tumor's malignance and the risk that the upcoming surgery will result in paralysis. He argues that their mother is terrified and that there is no point in making her more afraid. Kate objects to the concealment of the truth but complies unwillingly with her brother's request.
She gains permission to take her mother for a ten-minute walk outside, just time enough to take a ferris wheel ride. As their car reaches the top of the wheel, Kate is clearly upset. Her mother comforts her, saying, "I know all about it . . . I know what you haven't told me" (196).
Death’s power to erode and silence human speech has catalyzed a rich and varied flood of writing, some of which is collected in this book. Each of its four sections is devoted to one of the ways in which we speak and write in the context of death: eulogies, letters, elegies, and epitaphs. Culled from a chronological range stretching roughly from Roman antiquity to the present, these texts represent the famous, the anonymous, and all manner of people in between: as subjects of praise, mourning, and remembrance; as writers of speeches, letters, and poems about the dead; and as recipients of condolence letters.
When Ruth's unfaithful and unappreciative husband Bobbo calls her a she-devil, she decides to appropriate that identity with a vengeance and take a different spot in the power relations of the world. She wants revenge, power, money, and "to be loved and not love in return"(49). Specifically, Ruth wants to bring about the downfall of her husband's lover, Mary Fisher, a pretty, blonde romance novelist who lives in a tower by the sea and lacks for neither love nor money nor power.
Ruth commences her elaborate revenge by burning down her own home and dumping her surly children with Mary and Bobbo. She continues on a literally shape-shifting quest in which she changes identities; gains skill, power, and money; and explores and critiques key sites of power and powerlessness in contemporary society, including the church, the law, the geriatric institution, the family home, and (above all) the bedroom.
By the end of the novel, Ruth achieves all four of her goals in abundance. Her success, however, raises complex ethical questions, not only because she uses the same strategies of manipulation and cruelty of which she was a victim, but also because of the painful physical reconstruction of her body that is the tool of her victory.
The multiple plots of Our Mutual Friend, Dickens's last complete novel, twine around the miser John Harmon's legacy of profitable heaps of refuse ("dust"). Harmon dies and leaves the dustheap operation to his estranged son John, on the condition that he marry Bella Wilfer, a young woman unknown to him. When a body found in the Thames is believed to be the younger Harmon, travelling home to receive his inheritance, the dustheaps descend instead to Harmon's servant Noddy Boffin ("The Golden Dustman").
Boffin and his wife respond to their new status by hiring Silas Wegg, a "literary man with a wooden leg" to teach Boffin to read; arranging to adopt an orphaned toddler from his poor great-grandmother; and bringing the socially ambitious Bella Wilfer into their home, where she is watched and evaluated by John Rokesmith, a mysterious young man employed as Boffin's secretary.
Rokesmith is actually John Harmon, who has survived betrayal and attempted murder and is living incognito so that he can observe Bella. Boffin's negative transformation by his wealth, Bella's moral awakening as she witnesses the changes wealth produces in Boffin and in herself, and the developing love relationship between Rokesmith and Bella form one key sub-plot.
Another is the romance between gentlemanly idler Eugene Wrayburn and Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of the waterman who finds the drowned body. Class differences and the obsessive love and jealousy of schoolmaster Bradley Headstone threaten their relationship, but they are finally married with the help of the crippled dolls' dressmaker Jenny Wren. The smaller plots that interweave these sensation/romance narratives comment on the hypocrisy of fashionable life ("Podsnappery") and the destruction of the family lives of both rich and poor by an industrialized, materialistic society.
Most of the thirteen stories in this collection portray interactions among pension guests in a German spa town; a few represent the lives of the town's permanent residents. The minor health problems (mostly digestive ailments, or unspecified "internal complaints") of the guests are not the crux of the plot but rather what gives it its texture. Talk about eating, "internal complaints," sexuality, body image, and pregnancy is the vehicle through which people try to relate.
Most of the stories are about failed communications: between men and women, for example, or between German and English people. Several stories are narrated in the first person by a young Englishwoman whose bodily and marital status (ill? pregnant? married or not?) are pointedly ambiguous.
Two stories represent childbirth from "outsider" perspectives. In "At Lehman's," a virginal serving girl sees her mistress's pregnancy as an "ugly, ugly, ugly" state; later, her sexual explorations with a young man are interrupted by her mistress's screams in labor. In "A Birthday," a man waiting for his wife to give birth focuses on his own suffering rather than hers. "The Child-Who-Was-Tired" follows a child-servant through a day of repeated abuses to body and spirit that culminates in infanticide.
Four ghosts visit the miserly businessman Ebeneezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. After the apparition of Scrooge's dead business partner Marley, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas As Yet To Come guide Scrooge through his own emotionally charged past, his harsh and loveless present, and his bleak future. The vision of his own headstone and the realization that no one will mourn his death force Scrooge to see the error of his "Bah! Humbug!" attitude toward humanity in general and Christmas in specific.
The primary recipients of Scrooge's moral rebirth are his poor clerk Bob Cratchit and his family, especially the crippled boy Tiny Tim. When Scrooge wakes from his ghostly visitations, he delivers a huge turkey to the Cratchit household and gives Bob a raise. He becomes a "second father" to Tim and reconciles with his own nephew.
Adolescent orphan Nell Trent escapes with her gambling-addicted, mentally infirm grandfather from the villainous "dwarf" Daniel Quilp, to whom the old man, obsessed with making Nell wealthy, has lost his money and his shop. Quilp and a host of other malevolent and benevolent characters track the pair's journey through urban, rural, and industrial England. When the good characters reach the peaceful hamlet where Nell and her grandfather have settled, Nell has just died, soon to be joined by her grief-stricken grandfather.
In the fictional present of Evening, Ann Lord is diagnosed with terminal cancer and spends most of her time in her own bed in her house in Cambridge, Mass, drifting in and out of a medicated sleep, cared for by her adult children and various private nurses. In her reveries Ann returns to a weekend some forty years earlier, and re-experiences meeting a young doctor named Harris Arden and finding and losing the only true passion of her life. As Evening moves episodically between present and past, only the reader can see both Ann's dying, nearly motionless body and the hidden, vital world of her memories.
Ironically, while Ann's remembered youth forms a suspenseful plot, full of romance and tragedy, her full adult life seems to have been signally lacking in any of the passion, focus, and vitality that characterized her young womanhood. The best times of her life were literally over when that weekend in the past came to an abrupt and tragic close; and now, as her own life ends, it is this past "best time" that she returns to. Ann's children, friends, and caregivers only see her as a relatively young woman, dying a tragically early and painful death; they never grasp the content or intensity of her inner life, or know the name of the man who meant most to her.