Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The absence of men in Kristin Hunter's An Interesting Social Study

Read An Interesting Social Study HERE and Susan Glaspell's Trifles HERE.

"I know how things can be--for women. ...We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things--it's all just a different kind of the same thing."
--from Trifles by Susan Glaspell (1916)

There are only three characters in Kristin Hunter's short story - a young, African-American woman, "the new resident", approximately 30 years old, and two older Caucasian women, Mrs. Powell and Corinna - and this story of learned acceptance over evening drinks would be complicated in the presence of men.

While talking on an open porch on the mid-1960s Cape May shore, the new and old residents find common ground and can judge each other (or learn not to) more accurately once they discover they're not so different.

Corinna mentions to the new resident that when she “was growing up, girls weren’t supposed to train for careers. [They] went to school to become young ladies. The schools [she] went to, National Cathedral and Finch, were mostly finishing schools.” Upon reflection, the new resident, who had completed her undergraduate studies at Spelman, a Historically Black University for Women, realizes Spelman is little more than the same, all three with their weekly tea parties and frivolous social engagements. The new resident, in disclosing her Bryn Mawr graduate studies, also gains the respect of Mrs. Powell who "went to Spence" and doesn't think anyone learned "a damn thing in those young-lady schools, especially in the South".

It's relatively simple for the three women to overlook their separating circumstances and find commonality, but among men, the new resident's approval might not have been as easily earned. Though the three women are divided (superficially) by class, race, wealth, and age, they're still, in a sense among their peers.
The new resident said softly, almost to herself, “I wanted a quiet place to work on my thesis this summer. That’s why I picked Cape May. Besides, I heard it was a pretty town.”

“Well, you came to the right place if you wanted quiet,” Mrs. Powell said, pouring herself another double slug of whiskey. “This town is so damn quiet it gets my nerves sometimes.”
In Susan Glaspell's 1916 drama, Trifles, a woman is suspected of killing her husband - and when two female neighbors accompany officials to the home in search of proof, the two find all they need: proof that the suspect had been oppressed and emotionally abused by her husband (manifested in erratic sewing, a canary with a snapped neck, the cessation of the woman's singing, for which she had once been known in the community). For this, they suppress the evidence against her, secretly repairing her stitchwork and stealing the canary's corpse, pardoning her crime because they, a jury of her peers, understand the stagnant oppression, the "stillness" she must have had to endure.

Similarly, the three women on the porch at Cape May during that mid-1960s summer, "a strong tide seem[ing] to have scattered the varicolored bodies of bathers as randomly as shells," couldn't possibly condemn one another for being of a different race, or for the sins of their forefathers. They find in each other friendship, understanding, hope - understandings that in the presence of men, would have been more difficult to achieve.

...And male characters would have elongated and complicated the fairly simple narrative. Its 8 pages could have easily become a novel with the hurdles the women would have had to overcome in reaching the same end.