Men by Kay Boyle, 1941
The magic trick:
The use of the house as representing the soldier’s dreams of home
We have a very simple magic trick today. I like it, though. The prisoners in the story are forced to build a railroad all day everyday. Their progress brings them closer to a small house near the rail line, and they each adore looking at it. The house becomes a symbol of their pasts, their families, and their longing to go back to their homes.
Boyle doesn’t get fancy with this symbol. It’s not even written as a symbol for the reader to interpret. The characters, within the story, recognize the house as a symbol. No analysis needed. Many critics praise writing that gives the reader room for analysis and interpretation. I’ve heaped such praise on authors myself on this very website (see recent example, “The Chrysanthemums”). “Men” reminds us, though, that the reader isn’t the only smart guy in the room. Sometimes symbolism can work on a whole different level when the characters in the story identify their own symbols. And that’s quite a trick on Boyle’s part.
But if the Baron looked now and again at the mountain, the other men had had enough of scenery: it was the house they liked to look toward down the road. The seven months they had spent in internment had altered their eyesight for them so that the little house appeared singularly sweet and touching to them; it had a homely, nearly familiar look to them all as if they had seen it somewhere before in another country.