Two Fishermen by Morley Callaghan, 1936

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by Morley Callaghan, 1936

Morley Callaghan's fame emanates perhaps less from his literary output than from the fact that he was a member of the so-called "lost generation" of the 1920s who lived the expatriate life in Paris with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was the first Canadian author to become well known outside the boundaries of his native land. What is more important, however, is that in a long and productive career he published more than 20 works of fiction, including several novels and numerous short stories well worth the attention of readers and critics in Canada and elsewhere.

"Two Fishermen," collected in Now That April's Here (1936), also the title of one of his most famous stories, is typical of Callaghan's style and approach. His language here as elsewhere tends toward understatement. It is a simple, direct style that is reminiscent, though not necessarily derivative, of the work of his onetime newspaper colleague and comrade Hemingway. His diction is simple and elemental, like that of Sherwood Anderson in his best short stories. Although his Roman Catholicism was always an influence, the environment in which his characters live their often painful, confused, and even desperate lives is naturalistic. His characters themselves are usually simple, common people who are weak and capable of blunders but admirable for their struggles against whatever limitations fate may have assigned them.

"Two Fishermen" belongs to a number of subgenres of the short story. It is, for example, a story about the rite of passage of a young man. In many ways like George Willard, the protagonist of Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, he yearns to escape his small hometown for the big city. The work also belongs to that time-honored category of "newspaper fiction," with the young reporter, in this instance Michael Foster, witnessing his first execution and experiencing mature emotions he has never before felt. The motifs and themes with which Callaghan works in "Two Fishermen" include not only the initiation of the young to the bloody and painful realities of life but also the spontaneous nature of true friendship, the pleasures and moral obligations one friend owes to another, and the pervasive presence of shame and guilt in human nature. When Michael Foster sets out to meet the hangman who has come to the town to execute Thomas Delaney, convicted of murdering the man who molested his wife, he gets much more than he bargains for—a new friend and new insights into the drama of human life. The hangman, Smitty, is a small, gray-haired married man with five young children. He is simple, ordinary, affable—in short, Michael decides, "a nice little guy." An immediate amiability develops between the two as they fish and discuss the exigencies of the hangman's trade.

In this important scene Callaghan cleverly shifts the point of view from Michael to Smitty, who thinks that the reporter believes that he should be ashamed of his work. He is not, however. He tells Michael, "Somebody's got to do my job. There's got to be a hangman." Irony of situation and of language is skillfully woven through the narrative, as when the two drink scotch from Smitty's flask and toast each other ("Happy days") and when the hangman observes, "We're having a grand time, aren't we?"

The second part of "Two Fishermen" opens with an abrupt and stark contrast to the camaraderie and the pastoral tone of the first part: "At seven o'clock next morning Thomas Delaney was hanged in the town jail yard." Michael, though he feels it "his duty as a newspaperman" to observe the execution, is unable to do so. Afterward he encounters Smitty, who seems to be unmoved by the chore he has just completed and who gives his new friend two trout he had caught earlier in the morning before the hanging. In the melee that ensues, angry townsmen attack the hangman outside the jail, tossing sticks, stones, and other objects as he attempts to flee. Smitty falls and looks around desperately for someone to come to his aid. Michael, his moral strength failing an important test, moves back into the crowd, "betraying Smitty, who last night had had such a good neighbourly time with him." Although he tries to convince himself that "it's different now," the young man is overcome with the strong sense of shame that he had attributed to the hangman the day before.

When a member of the mob, significantly identified as a "big fisherman," demands to know why Michael does not participate in the assault, the reporter betrays his new friend as Peter denied Christ by insisting, "He just doesn't mean anything to me at all." The furious man grabs Smitty's gift from Michael's hands and throws it at "the little man." As the hangman endeavors to rise from the ground, he stares at the fish "with his mouth hanging open." Michael, "hot with shame," tries to flee from the scene. Parallels to the biblical betrayal and denial of Christ by Judas and Peter and the symbolism of the fish are subtly handled to underscore the flaw in Michael's character. As in most of his fiction, however, Callaghan makes no judgment but merely portrays his characters with their ironic and even paradoxical strengths and weaknesses.

The force and power of the brief story are achieved through Callaghan's skillful use of several major tools of the fiction writer's craft. The irony of the situation is intensified by his juxtaposition of contrasting events and by the understated language with which he describes not only everyday occurrences—two men in a boat fishing, for example—and the idyllic small-town and rural settings but also the events before and after the execution. The skillful use of biblical parallels and the careful manipulation of symbols, which are not merely tacked on to the story but which emanate naturally from the events, serve to make the emotional impact on Michael and Smitty all the stronger. One finishes "Two Fishermen" with the troubled, unsettling feeling that these are real people and real events and that somehow a total resolution to the dilemmas proposed must occur, if they do so, within the reader's own consciousness and conscience.

—W. Kenneth Holditch