A Jonquil For Mary Penn by Wendell Berry, 1992
The magic trick:
Character description perfection
It’s difficult to put into words how good and special this story is. This is the kind of writing that makes you believe in the power of the short story again, if ever your faith was wavering.
There are character studies and then there is Wendell Berry. You finish a story like this and you feel like you know these people better than you know your own family. It’s remarkable, and there are several sections here we could highlight. And maybe that’s the point. During the introduction, we get a really quite amazing description of Elton through the eyes of his wife, Mary. We don’t simply learn how she feels about him. We learn why she feels this way. The subtlety and detail on display here in the writing is beautiful.
So, anyhow, this being the beginning of the story, the reader figures (or at least I did, speaking for myself here) that the character introduction portion is now complete. You set the stage, you told us about the key characters, now the plot will begin. But no, that’s not really what happens at all. The next section doesn’t pick up the pace with any storyline. We return to more pensive character study – in the same thoughtful, precise and never indulgent description. We get to know more and more about these people, the neighbors, the nature of their relationships.
The plot is there. Mary Penn doesn’t feel well today. She’s fighting a fever. But the plot never truly takes center stage. It only serves a through line for these character studies. The descriptions weren’t providing background for the story. They were the story.
And that’s quite a trick on Berry’s part.
Though he might loiter a moment over his coffee, the day, she knew, had already possessed him; its momentum was on him. When he rose from bed in the morning, he stepped into the day’s work, impelled into it by the tension, never apart from him, between what he wanted to do and what he could do. The little hillside place that they had rented from his mother afforded him no proper scope for his ability and desire. They always needed money, but, day by day, they were getting by. Though the times were hard, they were not going to be in want. But she knew his need to surround her with a margin of pleasure and ease. This was his need, not hers; still, when he was not working at home, he would be working, or looking for work, or pay.
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“The descriptions weren’t providing background for the story. They were the story.” Brilliant insight right there! Thanks!