Friday, November 14, 2008

The Big Read IV: Shirley Jackson's "Flower Garden"

The Lottery: And Other Stories I had a few more thoughts about "After You, My Dear Alphonse" after reading the comments of the others. Here's what I said:

I didn't get that Johnny didn't get it, so I went back for another look. This time this sentence jumped out at me: "Mrs. Wilson lifted the plate of gingerbread off the table as Boyd was about to take another piece."

so saying that if you won't be grateful for free clothing, you can't have any more cookies.

So Johnny says, "She's screwy sometimes." Meaning, I take it, that he doesn't necessarily understand her actions as racist, but just think his mother acts irrationally at times.

So that makes me wonder why Boyd simply says, "So's mine."

Maybe because he realizes Johnny is blind to the race thing so far, and he wants to keep it that way as long as possible? Until Johnny becomes aware, they can just be two kids playing at soldiers and "after you."
Flower Garden

This is the longest story thus far in the collection. The beginning almost seems to be an articulation of Shirley Jackson's Theory of Personality Defined by House.
After living in an old Vermont manor house together for almost eleven years, the two Mrs. Winnings, mother and daughter-in-law, had grown to look a good deal alike, as women will who live intimately together, and work in the same kitchen and get things done around the house in the same manner.
This also seems to reveal the outcome of the story. Mrs. Winning the Younger had a chance to step out of this gray existence, but she did not. Indeed she quickly fully accepted it because this habit of living in the house of her mother-in-law had impressed her personality too deeply. Or, when push came to shove, she did not wish after all for that colorful existence, and preferred this drab one.

Mrs. Winning the younger was getting a vicarious thrill over the cottage being sold in her neighborhood. Once upon a time she wished it for herself, but she is destined to live in her mother-in-law's house. She would have painted the kitchen yellow, planted roses in the garden. Perhaps if she becomes friends with the new owner, she could even have access to the person she could have been by having access to the house. I wonder as I read if this will happen.

For a little while it does seem to happen. She pauses on her way home. She does something without the direction of her mother-in-law, and knocks on the door. Inside, "Mrs. Winning smiled with friendship at the woman in the doorway, thing, She has done it right; this is the way it should look after all, she knows about pretty houses."

Everything was as she might have done, "a little more informal, perhaps, nothing of quite such good quality" as she might have chosen. The colors of blue and orange and yellow contrast with her own ancient home with coal stove and old wooden box that had held several generations worth of toys.

Mrs. Winning makes friends with Mrs. MacLane, and her boy Howard with Mrs. MacLane's boy Davey. Everybody around seemed to make similar excuses to drop in, welcome the new neighbor, help her out. The two women would go to the store together, and neighbors began to think of them as a unit.

That all changed when Mrs. MacLane treated a mixed-race boy the same as any other boy, and hired his black father to help her with her garden. This was the moment when Mrs. Winning had a choice, to choose the new house and new personality, or turn away from this choice. They were taking a long walk in the country.
Mrs. MacLane picked Queen Anne's lace and put it into the wagon with the baby, and the boys found a garter snake and tried to bring it home. On the way up the hill Mrs. MacLane helped pull the wagon with the baby and the Queen Anne's lace, and they stopped halfway to rest and Mrs. MacLane said, "Look, I believe you can see my garden all the way from here."
It was a spot of color almost at the top of the hill and they stood looking at it while the baby threw the Queen Ann's lace out of the wagon. Mrs. MacLane said, "I always want to stop here and look at it," and then, "Who is that beautiful child?"
I thought, at this moment, just when Mrs. Winning must make a choice, Queen Anne's Lace must be significant. There is a legend that if you bring it into your mother's house, she will die. Doesn't look like it's making its way into the mother-in-law's house. Meanwhile Mrs. MacLane's house is the only spot of color, the only spot of lively sanity, in the whole town.

Mrs. MacLane admonishes her son for using the n-word, while Mrs. Winning tells the (to the locals) scandalous tale of the white mother, a local girl, who "left the whole litter of them when Billy was about two, and went off with a white man." She begins to tell, but doesn't, it is hinted, that the daughter is following in her mother's footsteps, or is a lady of the night. Nobody ever actually says. Neighbors look at it as Mrs. Winning's duty to set her friend straight. Rather than say the words, she avoids her and drops the friendship.

People stop visiting Mrs. MacLane. Despite Mr. Jones' help, the garden withers, loses its color. The state of mind of the owner now appears to be affecting her surroundings. The younger Mrs. Winning shows where her loyalty lies when her little boy is invited to a birthday party, but Davey, the friend of the black boy, is not, and Mrs. Winning is asked if she minds.
Mrs. Winning felt sick for a minute, and had to wait for her voice to even out before she said lightly, "It's all right with me if it's all right with you; why do you have to ask me?" ..."Really," she said, putting the weight of the old Winning house into her voice, "why in the world would it bother me?"
Mrs. Winning felt that she had to say something further, something to state her position with finality, so that no long would Mrs. Burton, at least, dare to use such a tone to a Winning... "After all," Mrs. Winning said carefully, weighing the words, "she's like a second mother to Billy."
Woooh. She's implying the black handyman and the widow MacLane are an item.

Jackson really pounds the nail in the coffin with this one. The garden wilts, while Mrs. Winning's lawn is greener than ever. A storm breaks off a giant branch from a tree in the Burton's yard, and stabs the remaining floundering flowers of Mrs. MacLane's garden.
"Leave it alone, Mr. Jones," Mrs. MacLane said finally. "Leave it for the next people to move!"
Mrs. Winning, walking to the store, wouldn't say hello, but turned around and went back up the hill to her house.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey, thanks for looking up the Queen Anne's Lace -- I'd never heard that before!