‘Agatha’ by John O’Hara


Agatha by John O’Hara, 1963

The magic trick:

Ending the story with a conflict tangent that takes the story into a new place and ties up its loose ends at the same time

This story sort of drifts along slowly at first. We get the meanderings of Agatha’s thoughts and memories. She’s a sad, wealthy lady. Bored and petty. We see her interactions with her maid, and it’s surprising to note how casual the maid is with Agatha in conversation, how defensive Agatha acts. It’s as if Mary Moran the maid has all the leverage.

The story’s final section is an odd combination of explanatory and surprising. IT seems out of the blue. Suddenly, the main conflict in the story centers around Agatha’s lies to Mary that conceal accidental cigarette burns. What a weird tangent to end the story with. The more you consider it though, it’s not a tangent so much as cohesion. Now the story makes sense. Now the depths of Agatha’s insecurity and self-loathing are understood. And that’s quite a trick on O’Hara’s part.

The selection:

The dogs were now sitting up. “One little piece of toast is all you’re going to get,” she said. “No, Percy, you must wait till your older stepbrother has his. See there, Muggsy? If you’d taught him better manners he wouldn’t be so grabby. One piece is all you’re going to get, so don’t bother to look at me that way. Down, boys. I said down. Down, God damn it! Percy, you scratched me, you son of a bitch. You could cause me all sorts of trouble, explaining a scratch like that. If there was anybody I had to explain to.” She lit a cigarette and blew smoke in the dogs’ muzzles. “Now stay down, and don’t interrupt me while I see whose sucker list I’m on today.”


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One thought on “‘Agatha’ by John O’Hara

  1. I would love to see someone break down this story fully – i can’t find much on the internet. I like your take.

    I was shocked by the abrupt ending and felt like i missed the point entirely and was immediately unsatisfied. However, i can’t get it out of my mind. Sort of wonderful!

    I’ve never read anything by John O’hara, but i’m excited to continue the New York stories collection.

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