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Back in the Zoo with Jean Stafford

Filed under: The Katharine Wheel: On Fiction   Tagged: , , , ,

The second installment of a new column on New Yorker fiction, past and present, by writer and editor Benjamin Chambers.

Stories Discussed: Jean Stafford’s “In the Zoo,” published September 19, 1953; “The Shorn Lamb,” published January 24, 1953; “The Liberation,” published May 30, 1953; and “Children are Bored on Sundays,” published February 21, 1948.

When Martin recently posted the contents of some old anthologies of fiction from The New Yorker, I saw a lot of familiar stories, but none so welcome as Jean Stafford’s “In the Zoo.”

I first read it 20 years ago in graduate school, where New Yorker author Deborah Eisenberg was a visiting professor and put it on the reading list. Unlike the other stories on that list, the Stafford story stayed with me, and now that I’ve re-read it, I can see why. It doesn’t glitter like a diamond, but it’s tough enough to cut glass.

For such a short story, “In the Zoo” has a very long opening and denouement. At first, I found myself impatient with the opening paragraphs’ slow pan over various animals in the Denver Zoo, but the setup works, thematically and dramatically, giving the piece the capacious feel of a much longer work. It’s a mark of Stafford’s precise verbal economy that she can do this. Look how neatly she characterizes Mrs. Placer, the woman who takes in the narrator of the story and her sister Daisy during the Depression, after their parents have died:

If a child with braces on her teeth came to play with us, she was, according to Gran [Mrs. Placer], slyly lording it over us because our teeth were crooked, but there was no money to have them straightened. And what could be the meaning of being asked to come for supper at the doctor’s house? Were the doctor and his la-di-da New York wife and those pert girls with their solid gold barrettes and their Shetland pony going to shame her poor darlings? Or shame their poor Gran by making them sorry to come home to the plain but honest life that was all she could provide for them?
The way Stafford catches and mocks Mrs. Placer’s voice is impressive. But even as we smile at this Dickensian grotesque (to borrow a Stafford phrase), we sense her malevolence clearly enough that we’re not surprised when the narrator concludes, “Steeped in these mists of accusation and hidden plots and double meanings, Daisy and I grew up like worms.” Worms!

The girls’ one happiness is visiting Mr. Murphy, a kindly drunk with a small menagerie who does “nothing all day long but drink bathtub gin in rickeys and play solitaire and smile to himself and talk to his animals.” One day, he surprises them with the gift of a stray puppy, half-Lab, half-collie. The girls convince Mrs. Placer to let them take the dog in, and for a while it is their playful, well-trained pal.

Mrs. Placer intervenes, however, in the molding of the dog’s character and very quickly transforms him into a vicious bully, loyal only to her. The girls, heartbroken, turn to Mr. Murphy, who, it turns out, has something of a vicious temper. Roused from his nodding, alcoholic stupor by the harm Mrs. Placer has done to the sweet dog he gave the girls, he goes to confront her in one brief, shattering high noon.

In life, there’s rarely an easy escape after a climactic confrontation, and neither is one vouchsafed the girls in this story. They grow to adulthood under Mrs. Placer’s roof, their spirits virtually broken; the denouement makes clear that, though they are well into middle age, they have not recovered from her insidious influence, and never will.

For all that, though, “In the Zoo” is not grim at all, merely sad, and comic. Its ironic, confident tone makes it almost sprightly at times; nonetheless, when you’ve finished, you know you’ve been through something.

Stafford published two other stories in TNY in 1953, “The Shorn Lamb,” and “The Liberation,” so I figured I’d read them as well, along with “Children are Bored on Sundays” from 1948, which, I happen to know thanks to Martin, was a Best American Short Stories pick, as well as the first story Stafford published in TNY.

The focal character of “The Shorn Lamb” is Hannah, a five-year-old girl whose father has just cut off her beautiful golden hair so that she now looks like a boy. There is no action in the story proper: the little girl listens to her mother tell the whole sordid tale to her sister, and it is through this conversation and the accompanying summary that we learn of the war between Hannah’s parents.

Hannah’s haircut, we realize, is both an indirect way for her father to attack her mother (who has beautiful hair of her own), and to sever her mother’s relationship with an artist, a man who has been painting a portrait of mother and daughter. (Mysteriously, Hannah’s haircut makes it impossible to ever continue the portrait.)

The harshness of the conflict between the parents is well-drawn, but Hannah is a clumsy and cloying medium for portraying it. The first Monday after her haircut, she’s left at home as usual while her older siblings are taken to school. She waves to them as they leave, calling, “Goodbye dearest Janie and Johnny and Andy and Hughie!” And when she overhears her mother say, “I’m very anti-man, today,” she repeats to herself, “What is antiman?” Ick.

The emotional violence perpetrated on Hannah by her parents, however, seems to be a preoccupation of Stafford’s, at least judging from the four stories under discussion. It’s the central dynamic of “In the Zoo,” of course, as well as “The Shorn Lamb,” and it shows up again in “The Liberation.”

“The Liberation” concerns the plight of Polly, a thirty-year-old teacher of German who still lives at home with her bossy aunt and uncle, who would like nothing better than to keep her there. She is largely content with her dull, constricted life until a surprise marriage proposal offers her a chance of escape. Steeling herself to tell her aunt and uncle that she will be getting married and leaving them, she prepares for a contest she fears she cannot win. Her victory is quick, however, though placed in jeopardy at the last moment by the news that her fiancé has died (conveniently for the author). I won’t spoil the story’s eventual resolution, but I will say I found it unconvincing.

Stafford’s troubles with making “The Liberation” work might have had to do with her doubts that people can ever fully escape the tyranny of others. Certainly, “In the Zoo” argues otherwise, and “Children are Bored on Sundays,” similarly, is a case study in how an adult free of her parents’ control suffers from exclusion and disparagement by her peers.

The story’s protagonist, Emma, is a young woman recovering from an emotional breakdown brought on by the pressure of trying to fit in with an intellectual coterie. Dividing the world between “rubes” and intellectuals, she is fully at home with neither, and the unkindness of the latter has, apparently, turned her into a basket case.

When she finally feels strong enough again to venture out to a museum, she quite naturally runs into one of the intellectual set, Alfred Eisenburg, the sight of whom disturbs her fragile equilibrium. (Personally, I was much more startled by Salvador Dalí, who turns up a couple of times in the crowd of museum-goers.) Alfred, however, is also the worse for wear, and he and Emma go off for a drink together, relieved for the moment of the burden of being, as Stafford says, “grownups.” (Respite, in Stafford’s world, means escape from the meanness of others, and can only be, like childhood, temporary.)

The problem is, the conflict is finally too abstract, and the story never quite real—the tone too arch for us to find the reasons for Emma’s breakdown completely believable (indeed, it’s not clear whether we’re meant to find Emma sympathetic or to laugh at her simplicity and frailty). If there’s tragedy or comedy here, it’s unrealized.

“Zoo,” however, delivers. Only in this story does the conflict occur on stage, so to speak, with clear, comprehensible stakes. And its classical proportions serve it well, for while the violence of the collision between Mr. Murphy and Mrs. Placer makes the story remarkable, it needs the subsequent fate of the girls in later life—the long, unending denouement—to give it such lasting weight. Look it up, by all means.

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