The Drowned Man by Maeve Brennan, 1963
The magic trick:
Isolating one human feeling and working up a degree of tension around that singular point
“The Drowned Man” isolates a very specific human failing: the inability to feel what we think we should feel.
Rose Derdon has died. Her husband Hubert is grieving at home, except that he can’t quite find the grief. He’s sad but he doesn’t miss her. He wants badly to miss her. But he can’t find the feelings.
He considers his situation at length for most of the story, with the emotional tension building and building until, like a dam, he finally bursts. Those final few pages, detailing his breakdown, are among the most heart-wrenching I’ve read.
And that’s quite a trick on Brennan’s part.
The tears hurt him and covered him with a pain that seemed to grow more unbearable every minute, but what hurt most of all was his inability to tell his sister that he was not crying for Rose, because he really and truly felt no grief for Rose, but that was crying for the lack of grief, because surely poor Rose had deserved more than a casual dismissal from life, and that most of all he was crying simply and solely because he was sad.
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