Winter 1995, Volume 12.1
Joseph J. Wydeven
Myth and Melancholy: Wright Morris's Stories of Old Age
Joseph J. Wydeven (Ph.D., Purdue University) is Professor of English and Humanities at Bellevue University. His work has appeared in Centennial Review, MidAmerica, Midwest Quarterly, Western American Literature, Women and Western Literature, and others. He is currently working on the revision of David Madden's Twayne book on William Morris.
In 1992, after a prolific career as novelist and photographer spanning fifty years and over thirty books of fiction, photography, and criticism, Wright Morris told the San Francisco Chronicle that he had retired as a writer: his writing, he thought, no longer met his standards. He had published his last novel, Plains Song for Female Voices, in 1980, and won the American Book Award for it. After Plains Song he spent the decade of the 1980's putting his career in order, writing three volumes of memoir and compiling retrospective collections of his photographs, critical essays on photography, and short stories.
Of particular interest here is the volume Morris published in 1986, Collected Stories, 1948-1986. As eleven of the twenty-six works in Collected Stories were first published in the 1980's, it appears that Morris turned to the more concentrated demands of the short story when he found his abilities to sustain the novel form diminished. Morris's comments to the Chronicle gain additional poignancy because central to some of these stories is the subject of aging. Morris's interest in the lives of the elderly is hardly new; witness, for example, his observations on aging linked to the photographic image in The Home Place (1948), his paired short novels Fire Sermon (1971) and A Life (1973), and his portraits of Scanlon in The Field of Vision (1956) and Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960). What is new, however, is that these stories benefit from Morris's personal experiences with the aging process.
One might expect to find Morris represented in the anthologies of literature on aging and the aged that have begun to appear in recent years—but such is not the case. Even his friend Wayne Booth, in The Art of Growing Older (1992), passes over Morris's fiction (though he does include a Morris photograph, "Uncle Harry Entering Barn" ). This absence is regrettable, for Morris brings to his stories special qualities: a seasoned pictorial imagination that relishes closely observed details, a characteristic ironic tone, and a wry humor blended with an oddly mellow world-weariness. The almost unexpected poignancy which results suggests that in these stories Morris's temperament found a fully appropriate and satisfying means of expression.
Five of these stories focus explicitly on protagonists making intimate accommodations to old age, or achieving new understanding as a result of the aging process: "The Customs of the Country," "Victrola," "Glimpse into Another Country," "Fellow Creatures," and "The Origin of Sadness" (three of which were included in Best American Short Story and O'Henry Prize Stories annuals). I want to focus most specifically on "Glimpse into Another Country," but it will help to look briefly at the other stories first, in order to convey something of the general character and flavor of Morris's work in the short story.
The key to much of Morris's fiction, as first noted by Wayne Booth ("Two Worlds"), is found in dualism, hinted at in titles like "Real Losses, Imaginary Gains" and "Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments." This duaIism characteristically entails a fictive situation in which the protagonist must use imagination to transcend limitations imposed by brute reality; since The Field of Vision, his prime examination of this phenomenon, Morris has referred to the process as transformation. For Morris transformation appears to be a reclamation of the powers of the human will in acts of transcendence—acts that are as appropriate to the aged as to the young. Because the aged are more vulnerable to time, they are more inclined to nostalgia, but it is a nostalgia which Morris denies them because he wishes to encourage vitality in the present rather that revision of the past. Nevertheless, he continues in these stories to use irony with a vengeance, so as not, I sometimes suspect, to be caught with tears in his eyes.
The stories on aging, poignant but sparing of sentimentality, are at once realistic and visionary, originating in a pensiveness best expressed through the dualism of oxymoron; as Morris put it in regard to Sharon Rose in Plains Song, it entails "a sweet sadness, a pleasurable longing" (221). Morris's characters understand that mortality is a terminal condition—surely cause enough for sadness, but also the reason for life's sweetness: the reality of ultimate loss in death makes desire for transcendence, through no matter how small a gesture, significantly human. Most of these stories conclude with a small and understated imaginative act allowing the protagonist a vision of connection, linking him organically to nature or providing archetypal understanding—such as an oceanic feeling of kinship with children and animals (dogs, for example, grown too old to attack but not to bark). In this way the final stages of life are simultaneously mourned and celebrated as quintessentially human.
Morris's protagonists are often aided in their work of amelioration by what might be called a ritual of entry, whereby Morris prepares them for fresh discovery by modifying their means of perception. This is a device Morris has used often—from The Man Who Was There (1945) to Plains Song—as a means to open the protagonist's consciousness to alternate possibilities. One form this takes is what Morris in "Fellow Creatures" calls "a time displacement" (231), whereby the protagonist experiences temporal disorientation and finds a new connection between past and present. In "Glimpse into Another Country," for instance, the protagonist constantly sees similarities between present and past events: being "reminded" is therefore a kind of mythical realization of timelessness. Another opening is through dream or hypnagogic influence. Often these rituals of entry are attended by allusions to symbolic or physical Iight, haunting sounds of music, or the suggestion of a voice from beyond.
It should be noted, too, that from the beginning Morris has been a severe critic of the excesses in American culture (never more bitter than in A Bill of Rights, A Bill of Wrongs, A Bill of Goods ). Not for nothing did Leslie Fiedler say that Morris expresses "a kind of hopelessly American anti-Americanism unparalleled since Mark Twain" (502). As with Morris, so with his characters, most of whom possess, along with a sense of humor, a cranky edge to them, and the realization that many of the bright dreams of youth remain unfulfilled. Perhaps the most telling comment on the state of American culture in these stories is in the opening paragraph of "Glimpse into Another Country," when the Hazlitts' morning newspaper is found "flattened by the garbage pickup," suggesting a consumerist connection between "news" and trash.
Finally, a note on a peculiarity in Morris's narrative technique. Morris often relies upon accumulation of picture and incident rather than on plot or development of character. His narratives as a result are often quite simple, but in addition to the narrative we must attend carefully to descriptions and nuances; his protagonists' experiences tend to be cumulative rather than linear—an arrangement of dots instead of a line. The story to a significant extent consists of a marshalling of elements from felt experience to which readers are encouraged to respond inductively.
* * *
Perhaps the best entry to Morris's imaginative treatment of the effects and consequences of old age is "The Origin of Sadness," which emphasizes the importance of time and human attitudes toward it. Schuler, the protagonist (arguably based on Morris's friend Loren Eiseley), is an anthropologist who doubts the doctrines of Darwinian evolution. Although the youngest of the characters I am dealing with here, Schuler is the prototypical hapless Morris hero. Schuler had once visited "the great ape Massa" and empathized with Massa's "despair at his place in a cul-de-sac of evolution."
The story takes its title from Schuler's perception that sadness is an inevitable corollary to consciousness. When his wife dies, then when he finds that his aged mother no longer recognizes him, Schuler desires "to sIip time's noose" and fantasizes encasing himself in the polar ice—where in the fullness of time he might achieve distinction as a fossil—and thus transcend time's confinements. The story ends with Schuler waiting for death, having "accidentally" fallen into one of the arroyos where he had found fossils as a child, thus linking his own life to the long expanse of the geological record.
The reciprocity suggested by Schuler's relationship with the ape is carried further in the comic "Fellow Creatures," in which Huggins (the name is entirely appropriate) responds sympathetically to a variety of animals. Beginning with his discovery that the neighbor children's pullet is hiding in his garage, Huggins contemplates the duplicity in human behavior toward animals: pet-loving people are capable of referring to fryers, chicken-fried rabbit, roast spring lamb—or filet de cheval americain. At his barbecue one day, for example, Huggins feels the judgment of a "congress of cows" adventitiously converged on a neighbor's deck, and he refuses to eat the spare ribs he has been grilling.
One day Huggins observes a flock of grackles. When he hoots at them, Huggins detects a change of tone in their "discussion." The grackles gather in a tree under which Huggins will pass. Suddenly, Huggins has the "impression" "that the gabble of the birds caused the leaves to tremble, as if stirred by a breeze." It is not their movement but their voices which stir first the leaves, then Huggins's imagination. As he moves beneath the tree, Huggins is attentive: "Bits of leaves and feathers rained on him. The agitation Huggins had observed in the leaves he now felt within himself—a tingling, pleasurable excitement…." Thus Huggins's withdrawal from exploitation of animals is transformed into a mystical communion with them.
In "The Customs of the Country," reciprocity is found in an unexpected bond not between animals, but humans. Hapke, a janitor and gardener at a school, is relatively content, but he is baffled by older, "idle boys," who are careless with his plants. After Hapke complains, he finds one of his shrubs wholly destroyed, and he takes it as a warning: the destruction was symbolically intended for him, and he begins to live with fear and incomprehension. One day one of the boys accosts a small girl who is wading in the shallow creek bordering the playground. By the time Hapke discerns what has occurred, the boy has pushed the child into the water, where she drowns. At the ensuing interrogation, Hapke identifies the boy, but is accused by the boy's father of failure to intervene, and Hapke withdraws further. Even in such a melancholy circumstance, however, compensations exist. Leaving the playground one day, Hapke is accompanied by a small boy, who puts "his small, soft hand into Hapke's big rough one. For a moment he held it like an injured bird." Hapke's empathy is broadened when he observes "the boy's free hand absently pluck[ing] the leaves and twigs from the bushes they were passing."
Another story, "Victrola," involves a bond between an old man and his dog, the potential for pathos intercepted by irony and humor. We are told that theirs was a "close relationship," but it is in fact begrudged: they are "close" simply because they have grown old together. A turning point in their relationship had occurred one day when the dog, digging furiously under a tree, had so disordered Bundy that he struck it with the leash, and was then dismayed when it snarled at him. Arriving at a truce, man and dog come to acknowledge a common need, and Bundy even sees himself as a "human parallel" to the dog. One day (during Whole Grains Cereal Week, Morris characteristically informs us), while Bundy is in the supermarket, the dog, tied to a bicycle rack, is attacked by other dogs—and dies. Morris guards Bundy's response through indirection: we are told that recently Bundy's "eyes had filmed over" while he watched the Royal Wedding on TV.
The emotion in the conclusion to "Victrola" is also carefully controlled. The first word of the story is "Sit!," as Bundy commands the dog to an action, Morris tells us, it has already performed. The story ends with someone suggesting to Bundy that he sit. But told to do so, Bundy finds that he cannot; his knees will not flex. That Bundy dwells on his loss is reflected only in his focus on the care provided by a chaperone to "[o]ne of those women who buy two frozen dinners and then go off with the shopping cart and leave it somewhere…."
In varying degrees, then, these four stories deal with protagonists who accommodate themselves to the effects of old age, or who attain a kind of wisdom which allows them to transcend certain limitations in their earthly life and to achieve acceptance or renewal amidst diminished circumstances. Despite their indirection, abbreviated narrative, and reliance on compiled examples, these stories are relatively straightforward and offer few interpretive challenges. This cannot be said for "Glimpse into Another Country," which I believe to be Morris's finest story, precisely because of its density of imagery and richness of suggestion. It shows Morris's work at its best in its complexity and indeterminacy. I suggested earlier that Morris's narrative technique at its most oblique relies on accumulation of picture, incident, and symbol. Morris has said that he began as a writer by employing "an economy that occasionally defied comprehension. I implied everything." He adds that he "broke out of this blind, in 1940, by turning from writing to photography…. but it did not modify my passion for economy" (Conversations 105).
More than "economy" is at issue here, however—else Morris might simply be tabbed a minimalist; rather, Morris's style as a writer is greatly indebted to his long preoccupation with photography and photo-texts (as I have argued elsewhere in relation to The Works of Love). Although there is narrative movement in his works, what is often more important are the visual, "photographic" elements through which Morris hints at meaning. This can make comprehension difficult, similar to the problem people have in synthesizing photographic sequences, where they must rely on visual evidence presented in what may appear to be an arbitrary order.
As in photographic sequences, Morris's word-pictures often accumulate to suggest rather than to determine meaning, and thus a definitive interpretation is impossible—and one suspects, on Morris's part, undesirable. Writing appreciatively of one Morris photo, John Szarkowski speculates on its meaning and concludes "that the picture is intended to speak symbolically, but it is not easy to know what idea or circumstance it hopes to symbolize" (17). Something similar must be said for Morris's technique in "Glimpse into Another Country": its density of effects radiates interpretive possibilities. As the visual elements expand through language, the pictorial is charged with symbolic meaning: the way these pictures and symbols are linked sequentially constitutes much of the narrative. As Morris has written, "The reader's pleasure is often in proportion to what is left unsaid, or ambiguously hinted. To read such fiction well is to grasp some of the skills involved in its creation. As in music, the writer calls for this response, playing on the sensibility of the reader" (About Fiction 87).
The protagonist of "Glimpse into Another Country" is an old man named Hazlitt, who journeys alone from San Francisco to New York in quest of "life assurance" from a medical specialist, apparently to get a second opinion on a first opinion which Morris leaves wholly unspecified—the reader's first hint that the story should be approached symbolically or mythically. When Hazlitt's visit to the specialist finally takes place, it is so understated that his quest for "life assurance" is rendered even more ambiguous.
On the plane he encounters a woman, Mrs. Thayer, among whose eccentricities is her manner of scanning the final pages of her book—perhaps significantly The White Hotel—before reading the beginning. At one point, appalled by the pervasiveness of crime in the world, Mrs. Thayer exclaims, "There is no place to go!" to be safe (196). Afterwards, Mrs. Thayer shows up, with quiet coincidence, in some of the places Hazlitt visits in New York. In his hotel, Hazlitt finds "the impression he had of himself" in the mirror "altered" (199), suggesting he is being prepared for a blurring of identity. Later, seeing Mrs. Thayer negotiating with a peddler, Hazlitt enters into a strange state of euphoria. After buying a purse for his wife from the peddler, Hazlitt attempts to purchase a bracelet for her at Bloomingdale's, but while his driver's license is being verified (and his Visa card significantly refused), the store is evacuated because of a bomb threat; Hazlitt finds himself outside feeling "an obscure elation" because he now carries "no driver's license, no positive identification" (203)—and, we remember, no Visa. Back at the hotel, Hazlitt calls his wife "to report the events of the day," but does not tell her about the bomb threat, and "for some reason, he avoid[s] mention of Mrs. Thayer." Afterwards, in bed, he dreamily recalls a program on India he had glimpsed at Bloomingdale's (204).
Next day Hazlitt keeps his appointment with the specialist, whose manner suggests Hazlitt's case is hardly worthy of attention. Feeling "free of a nameless burden," Hazlitt returns to Bloomingdale's to complete his interrupted transaction, but he decides instead to purchase a strand of pearls which seems to glow with light. Still elated, Hazlitt walks to the Metropolitan Museum, recalling his past visits there with his wife—and again he sees Mrs. Thayer. Remembering the pleasures he used to take in the museum's Fountain Court lunchroom, Hazlitt makes his way there, only to find it has been disappointingly renovated. He descends the stairs to the basement lavatory, where he is accosted by several small boys, who deprive him of the pearls—an event Morris relates in a curiously matter of fact tone. In the lobby shop Hazlitt pauses to buy a pin "of Etruscan design, that he felt his wife would consider a sensible value." Outside, he pauses beside a bus, and one of the riders inside—Mrs. Thayer yet again—taps at the window. Hazlitt can see her only dimly, but he understands that she is signaling—waving farewell?—to him. Although "[w]hat appeared to be tears might have been drops of water" on the window, her eyes are "mild, and gave him all the assurance he needed" (209). As he watches, the bus carries her away.
Morris's broad archetypal allusions demand that the story be interpreted mythically: the journey structure frames an elaborate rite of passage, and the states of loss of identity and elation serve as means of mythic entry into new experience. The story recounts an old man's journey by air from one coastal city to another, then of the events involving him on the surface and in the underground of that city. The journey itself may be interpreted as HazIitt's initiation into understanding: he must learn to accept one of the final conditions in the human contract: removal from life's center to its periphery. This ritual is given to us in a series of richly detailed "glimpses." At the heart is the thoroughly platonic relationship between Hazlitt and Mrs. Thayer, a relationship suggesting a mythic need for a witness-guide to see the ritual through.
Much might be made of the Autumn-October-Halloween images which pervade the story, from Hazlitt's wife's broom at the outset, to the goblin pictures in the doctor's office, to the "trick or treat" scene in the lavatory; or of Mrs. Thayer's S-shaped posture and her habit of hissing (echoed by the bus which finally carries her off); or of the ambiguity in Hazlitt's quest and Morris's omission of information regarding the need for a "second opinion"—what can the meaning of "life assurance" be if the first opinion is a death sentence? Although many different approaches might be taken, the interpretation which follows focuses on three aspects of the story: the significance of the crowds which stream through the work, the symbolic functions of Mrs. Thayer and Hazlitt's wife, and the climactic scene in the Metropolitan lavatory.
At their simplest, the teeming crowds which Morris inserts into the story may symbolize only the vigorous goings-on of human life: "the stream of pedestrians" outside Bloomingdale's, "the stream of jabbering, excited people" evacuating the store, the "noisy group of young people who seemed to take his presence for granted" (200-3), the crowd in the Metropolitan likened to "that in Grand Central Terminal" (207). But less simple, and more important, is the "dense crowd" in the program on India which Hazlitt sees on the TV screen in Bloomingdale's—and which so strongly affects him. Morris begins the scene with an image emphasizing focal perception:
Nearby, a TV screen glowed like the sun at a porthole. He made out the image of a dense throng of people…. Hazlitt saw that the floor seemed to be strewn with bodies, to which the passing crowd was indifferent…. The milling of the figures among these fallen creatures gave the scene an unreal, dreamlike aspect. Were they dead? No, they were sleeping. The film gave Hazlitt a glimpse into a strange country where the quick and the dormant were accustomed to mingle. Perhaps, he thought, it was not the walkers but the sleepers who would range the farthest in their travels. (202)
This is no simple crowd: the hint to Morris's title in the passage assures its importance, as does the heightened language.
The image this crowd suggests (though without paralleling it) is that of the shades presenting themselves to Minos in Dante's Inferno—or T. S. Eliot's borrowed image from Dante in The Waste Land: "A crowd flowed over London bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many"—or perhaps more in keeping with Mrs. Thayer's reading of D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel, the crowd in which Lisa and Kolya find themselves in their tragic way to Babi Yar (229-50). These images, at any rate, are so memorable that before Hazlitt falls asleep that night they appear to him almost hypnagogically:
In the play of reflections on the ceiling he glimpsed, as through a canopy of leaves, the faraway prospect he had seen on the Bloomingdale's TV—bustling figures swarming soundlessly among the bodies strewn about a station lobby. Somehow the spectacle was full of mystery for him. None of this was a dreamno, he was awake; he heard the blast of the horns below his window—but the dreamlike aura held him in its spell until those sleeping figures arose to continue their journey. (204)
Hazlitt is mesmerized by this image of crowded life, one suspects, because his need for a "second opinion" has given him an intimate reason to reconsider his own place in its midst: is he one of the quick or one of the dormant? On the verge of dropping off to sleep himself, Hazlitt, acutely aware of mortality, seems to will the sleepers "to continue their journey."
That Hazlitt remains among the quick is suggested by his responses, often tinged with eroticism, to the ubiquitous Mrs. Thayer. Hazlitt is conscious of her lilac scent, and "[f]rom the pink lobes of her ears he received faintly erotic signals"; he finds "in her green, unblinking stare…the glimpse of a chill that might excite a lover" (195, 197). There is, however, no question of infidelity here, even if Hazlitt neglects to tell his wife at home of Mrs. Thayer's existence (though it is obliquely suggested that at some future time Hazlitt does discuss her with his wife ).
The contrast between Hazlitt's wife and Mrs. Thayer is acute—though it is not one Morris makes explicit. The story opens with Hazlitt's wife significantly carrying a broom and urging Hazlitt to be sensible, removing gray hairs from his clothing, and reminding him of the hazards of ethnic food; she has given Hazlitt five twenty dollar bills "so that when the muggers looked for money they would find it" (199). It is she who plays the first variation on the theme of mortality: using her broom to keep the neighbor's aged dogs away, she mutters, "I'll outlive them if it kills me" (194), which hints obliquely and with humor at the point of her husband's journey.
Although there is no mention of his wife's sexuality, it is important to remember that it is she for whom Hazlitt buys a "French-type purse" (200) and a strand of pearls—further, that he makes a point of buying a pouch to protect the pearls, on the grounds that "[h]is wife kept her jewels in pouches…" (206). His purchase of these particular items, laden with sexual symbolism, may well symbolize passion and sexual appreciation. Hazlitt never consciously revolts against her "sensible" nature, and always seems quite protective toward her.
Once removed from familiar surroundings and his wife's cautions, Hazlitt begins his mythic journey: "[A]s the plane set its course he caught glimpses of the far blue horizon" (195). Thereafter, Hazlitt's modification of consciousness is carefully articulated: in the hotel he finds himself "altered"; at Bloomingdale's he experiences "what his younger colleagues called 'having a buzz on'" and is elated at his loss of the identity normally conferred by driver's license and Visa card; further, he is constantly led by present events to memories of the past, as if the events across the entire span of his life are seeking connection, free of the constraints of temporal duration.
This alteration of consciousness appears necessary to prepare Hazlitt for the events in the puzzling conclusion to "Glimpse into another Country," set in the Metropolitan Museum, which Morris characterizes as a place where "[s]ecret transactions were encouraged…and a burden of culture was enlarged or diminished" (206). The presiding symbol in this section is water, beginning with the drizzle through which Hazlitt walks and ending with the tears (or drops of water?) Hazlitt sees in Mrs. Thayer's eyes. Of importance is the water which Hazlitt does not find in the renovated Fountain Court: "The dusky pool and its sculptured figures were gone. The basin was now a mere sunken pit, of a creamy color without shadows…. Instead of the refreshing coolness and splash of the water, there was the harsh clatter of plates and cutlery" (207). Dismayed, Hazlitt makes his way to the "dark and cool" lavatory, where he finds an ersatz version of the Fountain Court, one signifying, perhaps, a less responsible "burden of culture."
The sounds of water absent in the Fountain Court seem to have been transported to the lavatory, and the sculptures missing from upstairs seem here to be unknowingly simulated by real humans. Hazlitt enters to find this scene:
Six or seven small boys of assorted colors and sizes, their arms and faces smeared with gobs of white lather, stood facing the mirror at the row of washbowls. Their wide-eyed, soapy faces seemed to stare at Hazlitt from an adjoining room. The stillness, like that of a silent movie, was broken only by the sound of lapping water. A thin film of water covered the tiles at Hazlitt's feet. (208)
The water on the floor is caused by an older boy who is mindlessly depressing the handle of a toilet; the boy is stoned, and Morris comments, "In the deep void of his expanded pupils was all the where that the world was missing" (208). The "where" is an obvious echo of Mrs. Thayer's earlier commentary on crime and the absence of a viable civilized space.
This is certainly a scene rife with menace, yet Hazlitt appears to react with cool aplomb: Morris even says that Hazlitt was "pleased" "to have their [the younger boys'] close attention," suggesting ever more strongly the ritualistic quality of what is being played out. What follows appears even more reserved: when the boys cry "Trick or Treat" and then strike the offered coins from HazIitt's hand, it is significant that instead of giving them the money prepared by his wife to assuage muggers, Hazlitt reaches for the pearls. The passage is complex, especially remarkable for its sea imagery:
From the pocket of his jacket Hazlitt withdrew the suede pouch; he loosened the noose and let the string of pearls fall into the boy's coral palm. How beautiful they were, as if just fished from the deep! The boy's hand closed on them like a trap; he made a movement toward the door as one of the others grabbed him. Down they both went, slippery as eels, with their companions kicking and pulling at them. They thrashed about silently at Hazlitt's feet like one writhing, many-limbed monster. He was able to leave unmolested and track down the hall in his squishy shoes. (209)
Boys might indeed act like this, but these boys are lavishly and poetically linked to water, likened to eels and an octopus; one of them has a "coral palm."
It may be suggested that, without recourse to specific myths, Morris meant this scene especially to carry archetypal significance, linking Hazlitt's journey to water, pearls, and boys who function as obtuse guardians of the sacred. In Mircea Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion we read:
Living water, the fountains of youth, the Water of Life, and the rest, are all mythological formulae for the same metaphysical and religious reality: life, strength and eternity are contained in water. This water is not, of course, accessible to everybody in every way. It is guarded by monsters. (193)
If indeed Hazlitt is undergoing a ritual of initiation into another phase of life—a final phase "intended" to make old age and its consequences palatable—water is essential to aid in his "rebirth." The boys—ironic water monsters "infused with the sacred power of the abyss" (Eliade 207)may be seen as enacting timeless actions to bring Hazlitt through to the proper conclusion of his journey.
But what is the proper conclusion to Hazlitt's journey? Again Eliade may be helpful, this time on the meaning of the pearl ("…offered in ritual to river gods and others…") in comparative religion:
[W]hy should the pearl have any magical, medicinal or funeral meaning? This was because it was "born of the waters", because it was "born of the moon", because it represented the yin principle; because it was found in a shell, which symbolizes a femininity wholly creative. Everything works to transform the pearl into a "cosmological centre" bringing together the prerogatives of moon, woman, fertility, and birth. (439)
The pearls may then represent life-giving attachment to the female principle of fertility equated with life itself: in purchasing them Hazlitt attempts magically to deny mortality by doing obeisance to that principle. When the "water gods" demand the return of the pearls, however, they assert a prior claim—which Hazlitt, in his easy acquiescence, accepts without question. In effect he relinquishes his hold on the world and prepares to surrender his place in life.
Mrs. Thayer may thus be viewed as the presiding goddess of Hazlitt's journey, the angel of his flight—overseeing his rite of passage. Her "there" (Thayer) appears to respond to the loss of "where" in the world at large, for, as Morris concludes his myth, she gives him "all the assurance he needed" (209). Deprived of a meaningful world such as existed in the past, and now stripped of final vanities, Hazlitt in re-entering reality has the assurance of this odd goddess that his existence ceremonially reaffirms the human condition.
So interpreted, Hazlitt's journey in quest of "life assurance" concludes with his chastened understanding of the vanity of human wishes for immortality. He learns that, though desire for immortality is understandable, it is misguided because it ignores necessity and the tacit contract made at birth. He knows now it was vanity which drove him so to clutch to lifejust as it was vanity which drove and derided, in quite other circumstances, the boy in Joyce's "Araby." But the old man who walks away in "Glimpse into Another Country" does not suffer "anguish and anger"; rather he achieves the wisdom that allows him to buy his wife an Etruscan pin she "would consider a sensible value." "Glimpse into Another Country," then, may be seen as an archetypal parable of penultimate acceptance, in which an old man, tempted by desire, is enabled to find his place once again in the bittersweet realities of mortality.
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___ed. The Art of Growing Older: Writers on Living and Aging. New York: Poseidon P, 1992.
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Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel, 2nd ed. 1966. New York: Dell, 1969.
Knoll, Robert, ed. Conversations with Wright Morris: Critical Views and Responses. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1977.
Morris, Wright. About Fiction: Reverent Reflections on the Nature of Fiction with Irreverent Observations on Writers, Readers, & Other Abuses. New York: Harper, 1975.
___. Collected Stories: 1948-1986. New York: Harper, 1986.
___. "The Customs of the Country." Collected Stories: 177-83.
___. "Fellow Creatures." Collected Stories: 228-34.
___. "Glimpse into Another Country." Collected Stories: 194-209.
___. "The Origin of Sadness." Collected Stories: 259-74.
___. Plains Song for Female Voices. New York: Harper, 1980.
___. "Victrola." Collected Stories: 184-93.
Stein, Ruthe. "A Freeze-Frame on Eras Past." San Francisco Chronicle. 3 Sep. 1992: B3-B4.
Szarkowski, John. "Wright Morris the Photographer." Wright Morris: Origin of a Species. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992: 9-21.
Thomas, D. M. The White Hotel. New York: Viking, 1981.
Wydeven, Joseph J. "Focus and Frame in Wright Morris's The Works of Love." Western American Literature 23 (August 1988): 99-112.