Monday, February 07, 2011

The New Yorker: "Honor" by Tessa Hadley

The narrator here is Stella, looking back at her childhood living alone with her mother, Edna. We learn from the beginning that Edna doesn’t always tell Stella the truth. Stella learns much later, for example, that her father isn’t dead—he just left. The other presence in Stella’s life is Nana, Edna’s mother, whose home is sparsely furnished with items labeled, for ease of distribution after her death to various members of the family.

Edna gets a call and informs Stella that Aunt Andy will be coming to stay for a while. Stella struggles to remember her Aunt, actually the wife of a cousin of Stella’s father. Stella is warned not to mention Andy’s son Charlie—an admonition that tells Stella clearly that something has happened to Charlie. But where’s Andy’s husband? (She’s not to mention him either.)

But finally Stella learns that Andy’s husband, who had a history of abusing her (and whose father probably had a history of abuse also), had killed poor Charlie. There is a trial at which Andy must testify. But she gets through it and she even remarries, although she goes through a number of “hysterical pregnancies” that all around her humor: “Exacting our sympathetic good will, under false pretenses, she claimed some latitude, some indulgence, in return for the magnitude of what she had undergone, and what she had lost, which could never be restored.”

If this were a story submitted in a class of mine, I might suggest that there are flashes of brilliant writing, the piece lacks both focus and a central conflict. There is tension, and there are minor conflicts, but the most obvious conflict—that between Andy and her husband—is off stage. On the other hand, the domestic abuse trope is rather tired, and what Hadley has done here by introducing the curious young Stella, is to show us the abuse from a different angle. I generally like Hadley’s work, but I don’t think this is her best.

I also think the story is sexist. Or, at least, it is a story in which the male characters are all absent, drunk wife-abusers. If a man wrote a story in which all the women were prostitutes or drug-abusing unfit mothers, he’d be instantly attacked by someone for his sexism. I don’t really have a problem with this story on this point, but the next time someone complains about a story by a man because it is out of balance in its portrayals of the sexes, I’ll thank Tessa Hadley for giving me a response.

February 7, 2011: “Honor” by Tessa Hadley

3 comments:

Thomas G. said...

Well, to be fair, there are quite a few men who receive the same "sexist" criticism, yet are still celebrated. Andre Dubus is one (although, having read "Rose" I tend to disagree). There are many attacks on his stories which highlight the misogyny that pervades Catholicism in general e.g. a woman is the reason for many of his male characters' troubles, the men must do the cleaning up. I just think it's a fact of life. Some people grow up around drunk, mean men, and others grow up around spiteful, sloppy women--doesn't make the work, or the author, sexist.

I enjoyed the story, although I agree that her past two stories in the New Yorker seem to lack a greater tension. But that might be what I enjoy the most, strangely enough.

Clifford Garstang said...

That's my point, really. It's not sexist--unless a man does it. Critics have no trouble pointing out "sexism" in work by male writers, but when a woman does the same thing usually no one says a word.

Also, in the marketplace, emerging writers have difficulty placing work unless there's a strong, positive female character, but you don't have to have a strong, positive male character.

Thomas G said...

That's very true. Perhaps because the majority of readers are women [no excuse, still]?