The Poor Men And Women by Maeve Brennan, 1952
The magic trick:
Presenting a woman’s kindness in a way that only suggests painful loneliness and sadness
This could well be the saddest of the Derdon stories, and that’s saying something. It prefigures Brennan’s 1955 story, “The Old Man Of The Sea.” In that one, a young Maeve watches her mother create a monster of sorts by charitably buying apples from a door-to-door beggar/seller. The effect is comedic there.
Here, when Rose Derdon gives money to a beggar, the result isn’t funny at all. It’s just really, really sad. She feels a kind of connection to the man, so that when she sees him in the town – in a different context from begging at her door – she expects a moment of intimate recognition, even friendship.
Her husband, Hubert, of course scoffs.
It’s a very sad thing. Rose should be the hero of the story. She is acting out of kindness. Mostly. We think. She should be celebrated.
But then it gets screwed up.
The reader’s focus goes from what she has and what’s she doing to what she’s lacking. How lonely is her life that she needs a friendly connection with a beggar?
And how altruistic are her motives? Is this more about her feeling good about herself in the absence of anything else positive in her life? Maybe a little at least?
The story doesn’t answer those questions. How could it? There aren’t answers to those questions. They’re just ideas and concerns that are left lingering for the reader.
And that’s quite a trick on Brennan’s part.
Going home on the bus, she thought with satisfaction that the encounter on the bridge would give her the chance she had been looking for, to strike up a conversation with him. She made up a dialogue between them:
SHE: I saw you on the bridge the other day.
HE: Yes. I saw you, too. I would have spoken, but you seemed to bed in a hurry. How strange that we should meet.
SHE: Not at all. It’s a small world.
Or she might say:
“You’ve been coming to the door a good many years now.”
No, that would never do. He might think it was a hint to stay away. She might take a joking tone, asking him what was the great hurry he was in on the bridge. Well, the words would present themselves when the time came.
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