‘The Actual Thing’ by William Maxwell


The Actual Thing by William Maxwell, 1938

The magic trick:

Subtly pushing resolution just out of the protagonist’s reach over and over 

Alice Munro, in her Paris Review interview said, “An editor who thought nothing happened in William Maxwell’s stories, for example, would be of no use to me.”

I’d propose today’s Maxwell feature as an excellent test case.

Not much happens in this one. Or does it?

I love the layers of human behavior Maxwell reveals in such short order (less than five pages). Mr. Tupper celebrates a perverse victory of sorts when he is able to focus his sister’s thoughts on death, ripping her away from her usually insulated world of daily distractions. But, very subtly, the story shows us that Mr. Tupper hasn’t achieved a thing. He hasn’t faced his own mortality at all, in spite of his smugness. He has simply replaced one distraction with another – the petty fight with his sister. No one in the story can ever get to the titular “actual thing.” And that’s quite a trick on Maxwell’s part.

The selection:

“From now on,” he said, “I’m going to think about death a great deal. All the time, in fact.”

“Very well. You may,” she said, and her hand shook slightly as she began to cut again.

“What’s more, I’m going to talk about it. I think everybody should talk about it. Everybody over forty. And there should be clinics in various parts of the country where people can go and learn about death. Because it isn’t painful. The doctors say that death itself, the actual thing, is not at all painful. And people ought to know it. They ought to know how to get ready for it. How to put their affairs in order and how to compose their minds, so that when the time comes——”

“Oh dear!” Henrietta interrupted him. “Now I’ve gone and cut it all wrong.”

Mr. Tupper stopped walking.

“Have you really?” he asked, without a great deal of sympathy.

“Yes, I have! And it’s your fault, Edward. You came in here deliberately to bother and torment me!”


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