Family Walls by Maeve Brennan, 1973
The magic trick:
Doing a deep dive on what seems to be a superficial argument between husband and wife
Have you ever gotten in an argument? Yes, of course you have. And you probably stalk away afterward, replaying the debate in your head. And even the most stubborn among us would have to admit that within ten minutes they concede at least 40 percent of their argument.
That’s because things get complicated in the heat of the moment. We argue extremes we don’t even believe in just to prove a point. We lose sight of the original argument in favor of some petty principle. But if someone could just understand the whole scope of what we thought about the person or the situation in the argument, they’d understand that, hey, we’re not so bad. We’re not as mean as that argument may have made us seem. We do see both sides.
Unfortunately, that nuanced 360-degree view usually only exists in our internal monologue. Which is why this short story is so good.
In “Family Walls,” we see the Derdons in a marital spat. The specifics seem laughable. Rose closes the kitchen door just as Hubert comes home from work. He thinks he noticed her noticing him as she did it. Ridiculous, yes. But you probably can relate, admit it.
So the entire story – and it’s not particularly short – revolves around the stress and strain this kitchen door incident has caused. We get Hubert’s point of view, and in doing so, we understand the full spectrum of his views on this marriage. The backstory, the expectations, the disappointments.
You still might finish the story and think he’s being petty and mean. But at least you will understand where he’s coming from in this argument, so your judgment will be informed and fair.
And that’s quite a trick on Brennan’s part.
No, he wouldn’t bother trying to talk to her. It wasn’t worth his while, and it would only distress her for nothing. All the same, although Hubert felt that Rose was of no importance, he knew she was better than a good many people – better than the two women next door and better than the Donovans and better than the loud, good-for-nothing crowd at the tennis club. And he knew she was defenseless, and he felt that his indifference left her exposed, even though she didn’t know about it, and he pitied her, because in her own way she did her best, and nobody cared anything at all about her. She was a lost cause, all right, and it was a good thing that only he knew it. It would be terrible for Rose if the rest of the world knew what he knew about her. It was no accident that she had always lagged behind him. She had no sense. She was not able to take care of herself. She had always been the same.
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