Peter Jordan’s essay on ‘priming’ in this early Hemingway story sent me scurrying to the Finca Vigia collection. I’d read the story before, but not given it due attention. Published in 1938 as part of The First Forty-Nine Stories, the preface to that edition reveals that Hemingway wrote it in 1921. This puts it a whisker away in time from A.E.Coppard’s similar sized little gem, Weep Not My Wanton (though that too, of course, might have been written years before it was published!). The two stories have something else in common, though you might think their writers are more than half a world apart.
The similarity is in the structure, for each story has a powerfully shocking incident near to the end, yet one that is not the actual ending. Writers and commentators have been pointing out the importance of the endings of short stories for centuries. Short stories are about their endings. It’s arguably the defining quality of the form.
Clever stories end on a telling paragraph, cleverer ones on a sentence, and the really brilliant ones, sometimes on a single word. Look at Zola’s Attack on the Mill, or Hemingway’s A Canary for One. But with both the Coppard story, and Up in Michigan, there is about half a page of story following what must be seen as the dramatically climactic event. At first, having read the Coppard, I wondered if it was simply sloppy writing. Knowing when to stop is often cited as the hallmark of a great short story writer. But Coppard was also being called a great writer. What, I asked myself, was that ending doing? What was it there for? Since then I’ve found the same structure in many short tales. There was even one on Radio 4 during the time I was writing this essay.
In both Coppard’s and Hemingway’s tales that last section is of course doing the job of the story, and that is raising questions about the world that the story is set in, the situation that we have been told about, and the characters caught up in it. The dramatic event, however moving, surprising, or shocking, is part of the preparation, the contextualisation of that question; part of the framework through which we, as readers must search ourselves for its answer. Stories with this structure are asking to focus, not on a startling event but on something in the background. In Coppard’s tale that is the England in which the story unfolds. In Hemingway’s it is the mindset of the character Liz.
Jordan’s essay concentrates on the subliminal planting of ideas in the reader’s mind by repetition of words that carry an ambiguity of meaning and foreshadows events later in the story. The planting begins with that title, Up in Michigan, though we cannot begin to guess that there is an ambiguity until we are a long way into the story. Frank O’Connor, in his study of the short story, The Lonely Voice, examines Hemingway, and notices this technique, which he calls ‘elegant repetition’. Hemingway, he tells us, took it from James Joyce and developed it to the point of overuse, a criticism that Jordan also makes. It fails, Jordan suggests, when the subliminal passes into the supraliminal. That is, when he does it too often, and too obviously. That reminds me of David Lodge, defining style as what you do often enough for readers to notice you’re doing it!
Not all repetitions have to be subliminal though, and in this story there is a batch of them in the third paragraph in which the words ‘she liked it’ are used six times, five of them at the beginning of sentences. Up in Michigan is a simple story, in some respects. The ‘girl’ Liz works for the Smiths as a house-maid. Jim lodges at the house. If we weren’t being as careful with words as Hemingway was, we might say ‘she fancies him’. If we read that third paragraph very carefully though, we will see that the fancying is all surface.
Jim takes off on a hunting trip with Mr Smith and another buddy. Liz pines for him. On his return he touches her sexually and she responds. They go for a walk, ‘and every little way they stopped and pressed against each other and Jim kissed her.’ That turns into ‘Jim had her dress up and was trying to do something to her.’ She tries to persuade him not to, but to no avail, and then he falls asleep.
Jordan calls this ‘date rape’, but the term is too modern for my taste, and threatens to distract from the true focus of the story, which is not the event itself, but rather what happens in that additional half page.
If the priming points that Jordan identifies are extracted they form almost a skeleton or core thread of the story. Having given us the six things that Liz ‘liked it’ about Jim, the paragraph ends: ‘Liking that made her feel funny.’ This is the first nudge to the reader that Liz, though sexually attracted to Jim is not aware of the true nature of her own feelings. Over and again in the story Hemingway’s narrator tells us that she is both ‘frightened’ and ‘wants it’, but that she does not fully understand what it is. A telling sentence encapsulates her position: ‘…it seemed as though everything would be all right when he came.’
Of course, when we read this the first time we can only get a subliminal sense of its possible sexual meaning, but when we re-read it we are much more likely to be aware of the double meaning. And so too with the seemingly clumsy construction, which we might have stumbled at in a first reading: ‘…so she could take the way he looked up to bed with her’. Awkward to read, because the middle section, ‘the way he looked’ is in effect a phrasal noun, yet unmarked as such. Re-configured as ‘he looked up to bed with her’ it is quite different.
Successful short stories need to be read more than once, and not because we don’t know what they are telling us. ‘Gobind the one—eyed’, in Kipling’s clever tale of short storyness, Preface, points out that people ‘are children in the matter of tales.’ And children, as any parent will know, like their stories re-told not because they have forgotten them, but because of the opposite. When we read again, all those subliminal hints glow in the light of our reader’s hindsight: the story deepens as our familiarity with it develops.
More ambiguities will reinforce our understanding of Liz’s emotional position. When Jim is the last to leave the front room and Liz has waited for him we are told: ‘She was thinking about him hard..’ He stands behind her chair and puts his arms around her, touching her breasts, and she responds: ‘the nipples were erect under his hands.’ What she thinks is one of those ‘priming’ moments: ‘He’s come to me finally. He’s really come.’
But, of course, he hasn’t yet. Hemingway is careful to tell us ‘she was so frightened and did not know anything….’, but ‘then something clicked inside her..’ This equivocation is not about minimizing the crime that will ensue, nor about lessening Jim’s guilt, but is, I believe, about being forensically precise about her state of mind, because, remarkably, considering what will happen, the rape will not be the point of the story, but her reaction to it. Before looking at that, we should see what we have been told about Jim.
He says remarkably little; a few sentences to Liz, mostly during the rape, and a couple to the other men as they drink whisky after their meal following the return from hunting. The narrator tells us very little too, but it is telling. After a brief description of what he does and where he lives, just before we get to that list of Liz’s likes about him, we are told ‘He liked her face because it was so jolly but he never thought about her.’
In a description of Liz that precedes this we have been told she ‘had good legs’, but what we are told about Jim’s likes does not pick up on that. Another thing we are told is that Jim ‘loved the taste and the feel of whiskey.’ That’s about it, but it’s enough to do two things. The first is to show that what we know about Jim is largely what Liz imagines rather than what the narrator has told us. The second relates to the whiskey.
When Jim fetches in the ‘four-gallon jug’ of whiskey we are told that ‘quite a little slopped back and forth in the bottom’. Implied is that Jim has already taken a drop: ‘Some of the whiskey ran down on his shirt front.’ Smith pours all three of them another large shot, and during their brief conversation they seem to take another. Jim, we are told, ‘began to feel great.’ And when he finally leaves the room Liz sees that ‘His eyes were shining and his hair was a little rumpled.’
Drunkenness rather than affection seems to fuel Jim’s attraction to Liz. When we get to the rape scene, it’s almost as if Jim is on automatic pilot. Even the words exchanged, from both of them, throw a strange light on the event.
‘‘Don’t, Jim’ Liz said.’ But he persists, and she says, ‘You mustn’t, Jim’. She repeats this several times, and just to make sure we’ve don’t miss it, the narrator tells us ‘she was frightened but she wanted it.’
To a modern readership this must be one of the hardest, perhaps the hardest sentence in the story to take. But this narrator isn’t putting forward a defence of diminished responsibility. It’s an omniscient, third person narrator, who tells the story as it is. There’s no hint anywhere that the narrator is unreliable. Unpalatable, unwelcome as it may be, we have to take the statement of her ‘wanting’ as true. True also is the fact that, as she says he must not, rather than she doesn’t want to, he says he’s going to, rather than that he wants to. But he also says ‘You know we got to.’
This is another telling remark, and for me is the most ‘human’ thing Jim says. That ‘we’ is about the only glimmer of connection with Liz that I found in the story. But he’s wrong, and Liz knows he’s wrong, and tells him so: ‘No we haven’t, Jim. We ain’t got to.’
The rape scene ends with her saying ‘Oh, Jim, Jim, oh.’, which the reader is left to interpret. Has he come? Has she? Or has he fallen asleep already? In the next paragraph she is lying under his sleeping form. She frees herself, unable to wake him, and does two remarkable things. She kisses him on the cheek, and later she tucks him ‘neatly and carefully’ in her coat.
The narrator tells us that she is crying and that ‘he had hurt her’. She is ‘cold and miserable and everything felt gone.’ Having covered him, she walks away and the story ends – in one of those ‘minor keys’, perhaps, that George Moore wrote of – with ‘A cold mist was coming up through the woods from the bay.’
There are so many actions, feelings, words that might have been portrayed as happening after that rape scene, so many that are not told here. She is not hysterical, angry, vengeful, not frightened any more. She does not attack him, physically abuse him or even run from him. She does not shout for help or insult him. She does call his name, three times, and says ‘Please.’ Even her crying, as told by the narrator, seems somehow measured and reflective. Is a state of shock being portrayed? My strong sense was that the narrator is telling us that for the first time Liz has seen Jim clearly, and is disappointed.
The story, it seems to me, rather than simply being one of perpetrator and victim, is one about delusion, and disillusion, which is both thoughtful and thought provoking. One telling curiosity, buried in the dialogue between the men as they drink, is that, by his landlord, Smith, Jim is always addressed as Jimmy.
Brindley Hallam Dennis writes short stories. He lives on the edge of England. Blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com and writes poetry, plays and essays as Mike Smith.
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