Double Birthday by Willa Cather, 1929
The magic trick:
Using brilliant detail and human understanding to create remarkably complete characters
This really is a textbook study in how to create full and fascinating characters with the utmost efficiency. Cather manages to capture, by my count at least, five characters in this short story for the reader to analyze and ponder long after the last sentence.
She does so using several techniques, of course. The story is brilliantly structured, including expert use of flashback allowing her to present a fascinating set of contrasting relationships. But the magic trick I want to highlight, the one I feel is the foundation to the story’s success, is her use of rich, human detail. She very clearly has a deep understanding of human nature, how people think and what they need, and it comes through in nearly every sentence, imbuing the characters with a degree of nuance most writers need the length of a novel to achieve.
My favorite example is her description of the judge’s daughter, a character who arguably ranks as only the fifth-most important here. At dinner, the judge begins an angry report on his meeting with Albert. Cather relates that Mrs. Parmenter, the daughter, in her younger days would have taken offense to his tone, but now more mature, she recognizes his weakness in herself and now is more forgiving. It is a remarkably astute observation on Cather’s part about the human condition – growing up, and the changing dynamics between father and daughter.
Short stories offer much to love, be it plot, character, emotion, or poetry. But often I find that my favorite thing in short fiction is this exact kind of little nugget, where the author doesn’t so much as teach you something about life you didn’t know but rather verbalizes some essential truth, something you’ve lived and understand but needed put to words.
In doing this Cather not only creates a little “Yeah, that’s right, I know just what she means” moment for the reader, she gives tremendous breadth of character to Mrs. Parmenter, and also happens to present the story’s main ideas – judgment, maturity, understanding and forgiveness – in one tidy paragraph. And that’s quite a trick on Cather’s part.
As a young girl his daughter used to take up the challenge and hotly defend the person who had displeased or disappointed her father. But as she grew older she was conscious of that same feeling in herself when people fell short of what she expected; and she understood now that when her father spoke as if he were savagely attacking someone, it merely meant that he was disappointed or sorry for them; he never spoke thus of persons for whom he had no feeling.