The Interior Castle by Jean Stafford, 1947
The magic trick:
Linking harrowing physical pain with an inability to communicate
I was aware, before my reading, of this story’s reputation for its super-realistic treatment of physical pain. It was well-earned. Stafford is harrowingly direct in her descriptions. What I didn’t expect was the story’s secondary level; the way she connects the physical pain Pansy feels after her car accident to the emotional repression she felt throughout her life before the accident.
The transition happens in the story’s seventh paragraph. To that point the reader has gotten extensive descriptions of Pansy’s accident, her pain, some of her thoughts and feelings about her situation. Then, rather suddenly, we get a few passages about her memories. The information about her past begins to fill in. Two paragraphs later, we get a longer, more telling, anecdote from her past. It’s not a lot to go on, but the backstory is just enough to add immense depth and shading to the Pansy character. And that’s quite a trick on Stafford’s part.
Often, but never articulately, the color pink troubled her and the picture of herself in the wrong hat hung steadfastly before her mind’s eye. None of the other girls had worn hats, and since autumn had come early that year, they were dressed again in green and rusty brown and dark yellow. Poor Pansy wore a white eyelet frock with a lacing of black ribbon around the square neck. When she came through the arch, overhung with bittersweet, and saw that they had not yet heard her, she almost turned back, but Mr. Oliver was there and she was in love with him.