A Dedicated Man by Elizabeth Taylor, 1960
The magic trick:
Leaving the dedicated man’s motivations in doubt for the most part, except for one moment of verbalized consideration
This is a supremely well-crafted gem about the most extraordinary thing that ever happened in the lives of very ordinary people. Definitely in the V.S. Pritchett, William Trevor mode. If you like that type of thing. That it’s not included in Elizabeth Taylor’s Selected Stories boggles the mind, because it surely is not possible that she wrote 25 stories better than this one. That’s like leaving “Walk Away Renee” off The Left Banke’s Greatest Hits.
Anyway, the dedicated man in question is mercurial throughout the story. The reader is consistently wondering why he does the things he does. What drives him? What essential character trait? What fundamental flaw? What fear?
Like most great stories, these answers are never made clear. But Edith does for a moment at least wonder the same things. And her momentary conjecture – “perhaps.. the thing he always dreaded most, was being laughed at” – helps frame our assessment. We’re left with that idea and can take it from there.
And that’s quite a trick on Taylor’s part.
In the dark, raftered dining room, Silcox counted the coned napkins and, walking among the tables, lifted the lids of the mustard pots and shook salt level in the cellars.
At the beginning of their partnership as waiter and waitress, Edith had liked to make mitres or fleur-de-lis or water lilies of the napkins, and Silcox, who thought this great vulgarity, waited until after he had made his proposal and been accepted before he put a stop to it. She had listened meekly. “Edwardian vulgarity,” he had told her, taking a roll of bread from the center of the petalled linen. Whipping the napkin straight, he turned it deftly into a dunce’s cap.
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