‘Bad Characters’ by Jean Stafford

Bad Characters by Jean Stafford, 1954

The magic trick:

Subtly blending the narrator’s good and bad characteristics

It’s Christmas in Colorado. Woolworth’s is full of holiday sights and sounds and smells. But look out, there are some thieves on the loose. Some real ruffians.

This is the kind of thing Frank O’Connor probably does better than anyone – the child narrator with a good heart but a fatal fascination with sin. That’s O’Connor’s thing, but I’ll say Stafford stakes her claim to the genre here with some authority. This is a fantastic story.

The key is making sure the reader understands that the narrator is mostly sweet. We have to believe that this dalliance in crime is only that – a dalliance. This story does that incredibly well because it’s subtle. You have to remember our narrator was in need of a friend in the first place because of her penchant for finding solitude by spontaneously cursing her companions into oblivion. So it’s not like she’s presented to us as a perfect angel. We know hers is a complicated soul from the outset.

Her imagination is an empathetic one. She imagines people’s hurt and anger in relation to her actions before she’s even acted. And she appreciates the finer points of Christmas in her town – even if it’s through a misanthrope’s lens. These are the characteristics of a young poet, not a budding thief.

And yet…

That’s why the story works so well. She is a young character torn between her morals and curiosities. And that’s quite a trick on Stafford’s part.

The selection:

There is nothing like Woolworth’s at Christmastime. It smells of peanut brittle and terrible chocolate candy, Djer-Kiss talcum powder and Ben Hur perfurme – smells sourly of tinsel and waxily of artificial poinsettias. The crowds are made up largely of children and women, with here and there a deliberative old man; the women are buying ribbons and wrappings and Christmas cards, and the children are buying asbestos pot holders for their mothers and, for their fathers, suede bookmarks with a burnt-in design that says “A good book is a good friend” or “Souvenir from the Garden of the Gods.” It is very noisy. The salesgirls are forever ringing their bells and asking the floorwalker to bring them change for a five; babies in gocarts are screaming as parcels fall on their heads; the women, waving rolls of red tissue paper, try to attract the attention of the harried girl behind the counter. (“Miss! All I want is this one batch of the red. Can’t I just give you the dime?” And the girl, beside herself, mottled with vexation, cries back, “Has to be rung up, Moddom, that’s the rule.”)

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