When It’s Human Instead Of When It’s Dog by Amy Hempel, 1985
The magic trick:
Telling the story from the point of view of the housekeeper
This is one of those Hempel stories that will gut you on first reading and then get in your head so that it demands a second reading and second gutting. It is a very brief look at a personal tragedy – a man’s pain in the aftermath of his wife’s death. The twist is that we get the story from the perspective of the family’s housekeeper.
Why is this? What’s added by this point of view?
I’m still working that out.
For one, I think it twists our sympathies a bit. In an “upstairs-downstairs” situation, it’s very easy for the reader to side with the downstairs and perhaps even look askance at the upstairs. But this is a story readymade to load up sympathy for the grieving husband. Your attitudes as a reader quickly adjust throughout the story the more information you get. I suppose that’s a fairly stupid thing to write. Obviously, that’s the case with any story you read. Hell, it’s the case with any experience or interaction you have in life, right? The more information you get, the more your attitudes adjust. But, in a short story setting like this – and this is a very short short story – those manipulations are magnified, I think. Clearly, the author is setting out to push and pull our view on this situation from the outset, and putting us in the point of view of the housekeeper is key to that process.
And that’s quite a trick on Hempel’s part.
Mrs. Hatano sings while she works, and the foreign sounds carry to the dining room. She waters down the vinegar – so that it will not take out the color. But scrubbing the stain with vinegar fails to bring up the nap. That place on the carpet, that darker surface like geography on the map, it can still be seen.
What would do it? Mrs. Hatano says to herself.
Maybe the spray cleaner, she thinks, and points the aerosol can. She presses the button and traces the spot with foam. It must be allowed to dry, so Mrs. Hatano returns to the kitchen. She opens the freezer and takes out what’s inside. She empties the crusty white ice-cube trays, and fills them with clear cold water.
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