The Trojan Women by William Maxwell, 1952
The magic trick:
Slyly showing the way a woman’s push for independence scares the town’s women
At first, this story let me down a little. I thought it wanted to take something from the Eudora Welty playbook. (Maxwell, as a fiction editor at the New Yorker then, of course would’ve been intimately acquainted with her work.) The story pits a woman who is leaving her husband against the opinion of the town. But it never quite attains that rarified Welty level of town gossip paranoia claustrophobic panic though. Maxwell commendably writes without judgment regarding his protagonist. But the absence of judgment isn’t synonymous with empathy. I never truly felt like I knew or understood Mildred. And the Adah Belle character? The colored woman as savior saint caretaker? The less said about her the better.
All of which I still think is accurate. But the more I sat with the story, the more I realized there is more here. There is, in fact, a slight twist on the Us vs. Them scenario.
The reader spends most of its time during the story with Mildred and her children out in the cabin. But the title should be a clue. The story really says more about the Trojan women of the town than it does about Mildred. Is Mildred doing the right thing? Hard to say. There is ample evidence here to suggest her children aren’t in the best way. We also get a frightening scene that suggests the daughter is familiar with child abuse. In short, we just don’t know. Nothing is clear about Mildred’s situation.
What is clear is that the Trojan women are using their judgments of Mildred to prop themselves up. This is their story. The opinion of the town is the story. Its effect on Mildred is irrelevant.
And that’s quite a trick on Maxwell’s part.
They were not, like Mildred Gellert, having trouble with their husbands. Their marriages were successful, their children took music lessons and won prizes at commencement, and they had every reason in the world to be satisfied (new curtains for the living room, a glassed-in sun porch), every reason to be happy. It was only that sometimes when they woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get to sleep for a while, and so reviewed their lives, something (what, exactly, they couldn’t say) seemed missing. The opportunity that they had always assumed would come to them hadn’t come after all. You mark my words, the women said to each other (the words of fear, the counsel of doubt), when cold weather comes, she’ll go back to him.
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