Mother by Sherwood Anderson, 1917
The magic trick:
Repeating a certain scene, even after the plot has fundamentally shifted a relationship
If the first two stories in Winesburg were character studies, we can think of “Mother” as the first fully formed short story in the collection. It does study its characters, that is true. But it has more movement, more interaction than either “Hands” or “Paper Pills.”
What do I mean by that? I don’t know. That’s the kind of nonsense talk I usually really dislike. It makes sense in my mind at least.
I guess I mean that “Hands” and “Paper Pills,” beautiful as they are, don’t change their message through any plot development. They are like still paintings.
In “Mother,” we see George Willard’s home life. We meet his parents. His ailing mother is living vicariously through him, hoping he can express something artistic that eluded her in her own life.
There is a beautiful scene in which they sit together in her bedroom, unable to communicate their thoughts or love for each other. It is instead a quiet, clumsy interaction.
Here, though, we do get a plot point. Mrs. Willard overhears a conversation between George and his father. Crucially, it changes the way she feels about her son. It answers the questions she’s wondered over.
But the story does a really neat thing next. We get a reprise of that aforementioned scene between mother and son. It’s much the same as before, awkward and clumsy.
Mrs. Willard knows things are different in her heart. We know things are different, because the story took us into the hallway to see her overhear the conversation. But the surface remains the same as before.
And that’s quite a trick on Anderson’s part.
In the evening when the son sat in the room with his mother, the silence made them both feel awkward. Darkness came on and the evening train came in at the station. In the street below feet tramped up and down upon a board sidewalk. In the station yard, after the evening train had gone, there was a heavy silence. Perhaps Skinner Leason, the express agent, moved a truck the length of the station platform. Over on Main Street sounded a man’s voice, laughing. The door of the express office banged. George Willard arose and crossing the room fumbled for the doorknob. Sometimes he knocked against a chair, making it scrape along the floor. By the window sat the sick woman, perfectly still, listless. Her long hands, white and bloodless, could be seen drooping over the ends of the arms of the chair. “I think you had better be out among the boys. You are too much indoors,” she said, striving to relieve the embarrassment of the departure. “I thought I would take a walk,” replied George Willard, who felt awkward and confused.
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