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•Society, Culture and Three Short Stories

Society, Culture, and Three Short Stories

It has always been the author's place to criticize the society in which he or she lives. The short story, with its traditional focus on a single idea, seems a perfect vehicle for such criticism. Authors from many different cultures have used short stories to point out the shortcomings of their own community, often in strikingly similar ways.

Many of these critical short stories seem to obey a certain form. In this pattern of short story, a content member of the society in question experiences an out-of-the-ordinary event which shakes or destroys his or her faith in the order of the society.

Three stories we have read, all written about different societies, seem to fall into the above pattern. "The Garden-Party," by Katherine Mansfield, "The Enormous Radio," by John Cheever, and "Heart of Darkness," by Joseph Conrad, all concern characters who become disillusioned with the beliefs and conventions of their cultures.

Katherine Mansfield was born and spent her teens in New Zealand1, and her story "The Garden-Party" examines upper-class British life, whether in New Zealand or England, and the British emphasis on class structure.

At the beginning of the story, Mansfield's protagonist, Laura, is preparing for a garden party and couldn't be happier with her lot. The author includes several passages which demonstrate her contentment. "Suddenly [Laura] couldn't stop herself. She ran at Laurie and gave him a small, quick squeeze. `Oh, I do love parties, don't you?' gasped Laura."2 Even random natural events seem to her idyllic. "...there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too. Darling little spots. Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A warm little silver star. She could have kissed it."3

While Laura is preparing for the party, she learns, almost by accident, of a local workman's death. She is in the kitchen while a servant is telling the cook about the event. Laura is shocked and wants to stop the party, but no one else shares her generous instinct. "To Laura's astonishment her mother behaved just like Jose, it was harder to bear because she seemed amused. She refused to take Laura seriously. `...It's only by accident we've heard of it. If someone had died there normally...we should still be having our party, shouldn't we?'"4

Laura is shocked by her family's unwillingness to show any concern for the workman's death. She is unable to articulate what is wrong, but she does feel that something is out of order. However, she soon forgets about the tragedy before the lure of the party. "I'll remember it again after the party's over, she decided."

After the party, Laura visits the house of the dead man with a basket of food from the party. She sees the body and is deeply moved: "What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane."5

Laura has encountered real life and death for the first time and has realized that the things that are valued in her level of society, parties and clothes and fine food, don't matter much at all. Her experience in the workman's house is the intrusion of another world into her limited experience. The event calls into question the values she has learned from her privileged life, where anything unpleasant is ignored. She is transformed, but she can not express what she has learned. "`Isn't life,' she stammered, `Isn't life--' But what life was she couldn't explain."6

"The Enormous Radio" by John Cheever also features characters who begin the story perfectly content with their life. Jim and Irene Westcott are presented as a perfectly average middle-class American family. "They were the parents of two young children, they had been married for nine years, they lived on the twelfth floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theatre on an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped someday to live in Westchester."7

The out-of-the-ordinary event which shakes the lives of the Wescotts is the purchase of a magic radio which lets them eavesdrop into their neighbors' lives. They discover that the lives around them are for the most part miserable and sordid. After listening obsessively to her neighbors, Irene tells her husband what she has learned.

"...They're all worried about money. Mrs. Hutchinson's mother is dying of cancer in Florida and they don't have enough money to send her to the Mayo Clinic. At least, Mr. Hutchinson says they don't have enough money. And some woman in this building is having an affair with the handyman--with that hideous handyman. It's too disgusting. And Mrs. Melville has heart trouble, and Mr. Hendricks is going to lose his job in April and Mrs. Hendricks is horrid about the whole thing and that girl who plays the `Missouri Waltz' is a whore, a common whore, and the elevator man has tuberculosis and Mr. Osborn has been beating Mrs. Osborn."

This bleak picture of everyday life in an apartment building not only shakes the Wescotts, it shakes the reader. Everyone in the apartment is portrayed as miserable. Even the Westcotts quarrel at the end of the story, and Jim brings up all the sordid events from Irene's past, including an abortion and stealing money from her sister.9 The only people in the story who are not shown to be miserable are Salvation Army singers, whom Irene says are "so much nicer than a lot of the people we know,"10 and the Sweeney's nurse, who, like the singers, isn't a member of the Wescotts' urban middle class.

Like "The Garden Party," "The Enormous Radio" presents the lives of its characters as practically worthless. The characters become aware of this fact through the intervention of an outside force, whether it be death or a magic radio. In both cases, the characters come to envy members of the lower class, whose lives they feel are more meaningful than theirs.

Joseph Conrad's story "Heart of Darkness" concerns the evils of colonialism. It differs from the above stories in that the character who becomes disillusioned is not the narrator, who has no respect for colonialism at the beginning, but Kurtz, the idealistic head of a Congo trading post.

The empires of the time, England, Denmark, France, Spain, and the other industrialized countries, approached colonization as a chance to plunder undeveloped areas of the globe, while representing it as an idealistic effort to bring civilization to the world. Kurtz begins with high ideals. He is a talented product of the West--"All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz;"11--with an education, painting skill, and oratorical skills. He sees his mission in the highest light. On his way to his post, he speaks of his role: "`"Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a cente\r for trade, of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing."'"12

When Kurtz reaches his post, he writes in a report, "`By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded[.]'"13 Soon, however, his sentiments change. Later in the 17-page report, he writes, "`Exterminate all the brutes!'"14 He presents himself as a god to the natives in his area, presiding, as the narrator says, "at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which...were offered up to him..."15 When the narrator finally meets Kurtz, the former visionary can only say, "`The horror! The horror!'"16

Like Laura and the Wescotts, Kurtz was an excellent representative of his society, which was that of educated, refined Europe. You could not ask for a more able or moral colonist than he was. But the savagery of the jungle was too much for him. The jungle more than intruded on his world; it replaced it. His beliefs are abandoned one by one and Kurtz is finally reduced to confused madness. His hopeless final words sum up his loss of faith as do Laura's inarticulate, "Isn't life..."17

The Westcotts, Laura, and Kurtz are all presented at the beginning of their respective stories as average, committed members of their society. However, when outside forces intervene, they find that their ways of looking at the world are no longer useful. None of the characters can replace their old world views with a new one. Laura is bewildered, the Westcotts are angry and depressed, and Kurtz sinks into madness.

These three stories use the same basic pattern of short story to criticize the shortcomings of three different societies. Urban America, upper-class Britain, and colonial Europe are all examined and found wanting by the authors. The stories emerge from different cultures, but they are unified by their parallel structure.


1. Cassill, R. V. Introduction. "The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995. P. 594.

2. Mansfield, Katherine. "The Garden-Party." The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. R. V. Cassill. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995. P. 596.

3. ibid., p. 597.

4. ibid., p. 601

5. ibid., p. 605

6. ibid., p. 606

7. Cheever, John. "The Enormous Radio." The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. R. V. Cassill. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995, p. 121

8. ibid., p. 128

9. ibid., p. 129

10. ibid., p. 127

11. Conrad, Joseph. "Heart of Darkness." The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. R. V. Cassill. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995. P. 203

12. ibid., p. 187

13. ibid., p. 203

14. ibid., p. 203

15. ibid., p. 203

16. ibid., p. 220

17. Mansfield, Katherine. "The Garden-Party." The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. R. V. Cassill. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995. P. 606

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