Home by Jayne Anne Phillips, 1979
by Jayne Anne Phillips, 1979
"Home" is one of three highly admired "returning home" stories in Jayne Anne Phillips's collection Black Tickets, the book that established her reputation as one of the most powerful short story writers of the 1970s. Phillips once told an interviewer that she was interested in what "home consists of" in the 1970s and 1980s, recognizing that since people move about so much families cannot depend on their history but must be more immediate. "Home," told by a 23-year-old woman, begins with the line "I ran out of money and I wasn't in love, so I have come home to my mother."
The thematic tension of "Home" is between a mother who has abandoned sexuality since her divorce and a daughter who is sexually dysfunctional as a result of either her father's sexual abuse or her fantasy of such abuse. Although the husband and father is never present in the story, he haunts the two women, making the mother want to cleanse herself of any memory of him and the daughter so physically tense that she cannot have sex with pleasure.
This shared identification between the mother and daughter makes the narrator feel the need to look at old photographs of her mother—with a white gardenia in her hair, dressed up as the groom in a mock wedding at a sorority party, formally posed in her cadet nurse's uniform. She imagines her own mother at age 23, caring for her dying mother, whom she painstakingly turns in bed so that she will not get bedsores. The narrator thinks of the telepathy she has with her mother, remembering that they used to have their periods on the same day. The mother, however, has reached a point in her life when she does not want to feel anything, while the girl is trying to find a way to engage in feeling. This theme is introduced by means of a bit of seemingly irrelevant dialogue, a typical technique of the modern short story. When the mother says that she does not want to go to the movies because she does not want to pay money to be upset, the girl replies, "But feeling something can teach you. Don't you want to learn anything?"
In another typical short story technique the narrator tells a seemingly irrelevant anecdote she has read in Reader's Digest about a teenage girl attacked by a bear and dragged unconscious for a mile. The narrator ponders, "And she lies now in the furred arms of a beast. The grizzly drags her quietly, quietly. He will care for her all the days of his life." Although the girl is spared, she is changed by the experience and retains a long, thin scar near her mouth. The symbolic significance of the anecdote is made clear when the narrator dreams of her father coming to her bed and looking at her face for a scar. He smells of musk, his forearms are black with hair, and he has an erection that makes her turn away in revulsion.
Motifs of the mother's embarrassment about sex punctuate the story. For example, the narrator knows that it upsets her mother to see her naked, "She looks at me so curiously, as though she didn't recognize my body." Later, when the narrator takes her mother a towel in the bath, she sees surgical scars on her mother's belly and one breast misshapen and sunken. She realizes that she cannot touch her mother any longer, and she is frightened. The difference between the way the two women feel about sex is indicated by the mother's concern that Walter Cronkite might have cancer, to which the narrator replies, "Maybe he is in love with a young girl." The mother worries about Hubert Humphrey, but the girl says that all he needs is "a good roll in the hay."
When Daniel, a former lover who was a medic in Vietnam and has ulcerated shrapnel and napalm scars on his arms and back, comes to see the narrator, she takes him to her childhood bedroom to have sex. But Daniel is also damaged and cannot get an erection in her house. Whereas the mother believes that Daniel will not respect the girl if she gives him sex, the narrator says that she can tell when someone is giving back. When the mother says that this is not possible, particularly by going to bed with every man one takes a fancy to, the girl says that she wishes she took a fancy more often but says that she is afraid and cannot be physical. The mother says that she has not had sex in years and does not want to feel anything, for she fears: "What if I started wanting it again? Then it would be hell."
The story ends when the narrator goes to Daniel's bed in the morning, knowing that he always wakes up with an erection. They have sex, but the mother hears them and leaves the house until Daniel is gone. As the two women stand in front of the sink, disappearing in the steam of the hot water, the mother cries: "I heard you, I heard it….Please, how much can you expect me to take? I don't know what to do about anything." The story ends with the two women standing at the sink together.
"Home" is about the inevitable identification and separation between mother and daughter, about the mother's fear of feeling and the daughter's inability to feel, about the mother's finishing up of her life and the daughter's inability to start hers, about the daughter's search for love and the mother's fear of it. The absent father is a mysterious presence, leaving only the image of a silent man smoking in the dark, unhappy and unfulfilled, for which both the narrator and the mother somehow feel responsible. Like the bear in the Reader's Digest story, both fearsome and protective at once, he represents the mystery of the male. When the mother can come to terms with the absent father and when the narrator can come to terms with her ambiguous fear of the mysterious male, their lives may achieve a sense of fulfillment. The final frozen picture of the two women standing before the steaming sink is a poignant image of the identity and difference between mother and daughter.
—Charles E. May