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
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 hercontentment. "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
"...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."8
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
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