A Spinster’s Tale
A Spinster’s Tale
Peter Taylor 1940
First published in the Southern Review in 1940, Peter Taylor wrote “A Spinster’s Tale” while he was still an undergraduate at Kenyon College. A rich and complex story, “A Spinster’s Tale” touches on Taylor’s recurring themes: family dynamics, gender conflicts, and, most importantly, life in the American South in the early twentieth century.
“A Spinster’s Tale” is considered one of Taylor’s finest short stories and is often praised for its honest depiction of growing up in the America South. Yet because it was published so early in Taylor’s career, some critics believe that the story tends to be overlooked in favor of his later works.
In 1917 Peter Taylor was born in Trenton, Tennessee. His mother, Katherine, was a daughter of Tennessee Governor Robert Taylor; his father, Matthew, was descended from a prominent western Tennessee family. Not surprisingly, much of Taylor’s short fiction, including “A Spinster’s Tale,” depicts the lives of upper-middle-class residents of Tennessee.
Taylor’s fiction reflects the changing environment of the American South. Southern culture revered tradition, but it was nonetheless changing rapidly during Taylor’s youth: new, modern cities were replacing the largely rural landscape of the past, the established roles of men and women seemed to be destabilizing, and African Americans were challenging laws of racial separatism. Taylor’s fiction reflects all of these subjects, though sometimes in only the most indirect way.
Taylor spent a year in England after high school and then returned to America. He attended several colleges in the late 1930s. His story, “A Spinster’s Tale,” was his first story to appear in a major literary journal, the Southern Review, edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren.
By the late 1940s, Taylor was teaching and writing fiction. He published his first book of stories in 1948.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, Taylor published regularly in the New Yorker. He was a visiting professor at Harvard and received an O. Henry prize for short story excellence. In 1969 Taylor’s Collected Stories was published. In 1986 he won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for his short fiction collection The Old Forest.
His only novel, A Summons to Memphis, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. A year later, Taylor was a founding member of a new group called the Fellowship of Southern Writers, which was dedicated to promoting Southern literary efforts. He died in 1994.
The first line of “A Spinster’s Tale” reveals several important facts: “My brother would often get drunk when I was a little girl, but that put a different sort of fear into me from what Mr. Speed did.” The author reveals (as the story’s title also suggests) that his narrator is older now, that drinking played an important role in her family life, and that there is a menacing character named Mr. Speed.
The narrator, Elizabeth (named after her late mother), discusses her vague obsession with Mr. Speed, the town drunk. Elizabeth’s father dismisses him as a “rascal,” yet Elizabeth suggests that she will eventually confront Mr. Speed.
Elizabeth reveals some of her fears when she stands before a mirror, craving escape, whispering “away, away,” until she bursts into tears. She then sees Mr. Speed “walking like a cripple” down the street. Elizabeth remembers her late mother and tries to forget about Mr. Speed.
One evening, Elizabeth stays awake until her brother returns home. He offers her candy, but she reenters her bedroom. He follows and she smells the “cheap whiskey” on his breath. Crying and hugging him, she exclaims, “I‘m always lonely.” The narrator recounts:
He kept his face turned away from me and finally spoke, out of the corner of his mouth, I thought, “I‘ll come home earlier some afternoons and we’ll talk and play.”
When I had said this distinctly, I fell away from him back on the bed. He stood up and looked at me curiously, as though in some way repelled by my settling so comfortably in the covers. And I could see his eighteen-year-old head cocked to one side as though trying to see my face in the dark. He leaned over me, and I smelled his whiskey breath. It was not repugnant to me. It was blended with the odor he always had. I thought he was going to strike me. (Excerpt from “A Spinster’s Tale”)
Later Elizabeth confesses “something like a longing for my brother to strike me,” and she wishes that she had said to him languidly, ’Oh Brother,’ (as if) we had in common some unmentionable trouble.” But Elizabeth then says “I would not let myself reflect further on my feelings for my brother—my desire for him to strike me and my delight in his natural odor”; she wants to be “completely settled with Mr. Speed first.”
Her brother comes home early the next day and Elizabeth acknowledges to herself that she has “come to accept (Mr. Speed’s) existence as a natural part of my life.” Sure enough, Mr. Speed appears, and Elizabeth’s brother even helps him retrieve his hat, which is blown off by the wind. “Mr. Speed is very ugly, brother,” Elizabeth says, but he responds “You’ll get used to him, for all his ugliness.”
One afternoon her brother and his friends stop by the house. One of the boys, only a year older than Elizabeth, asks her why she doesn’t wear her hair up as young women did at that time. Elizabeth blushes at this remark and bursts into the closed parlor where her father and uncles had been visiting, not heeding the boy’s pleas to leave the doors shut. Later, Elizabeth is glad that “I was a bold, or at least naughty, little girl.”
She is then lightheartedly accused of “flirting” with the youngest visiting boy and told “if you spend your time in such pursuits you’ll only bring upon yourself and upon the young men about Nashville great unhappiness.”
At this moment, Mr. Speed appears. Elizabeth tries to express her fear of Mr. Speed to her father, who tells her that she must shut her eyes against some things then says ’“After all ... you’re a young lady now.’”
At the story’s climax, Mr. Speed runs onto Elizabeth’s porch to escape the rain. The maid mistakes him for Elizabeth’s father and opens the front door for him. After he drunkenly enters the house, Elizabeth stares at him while the servant begs her to run upstairs to safety.
Part of Elizabeth longed “to hide my face from this in my own mother’s bosom,” but another part wants to “deal with Mr. Speed, however wrongly, myself.” Elizabeth phones for the police, who come and take Mr. Speed away. “I was frightened by the thought of the cruelty which I found I was capable of, a cruelty which seemed inextricably mixed with what I had called courage.”
Elizabeth’s father is angry when he learns that she called the police. That was the last time she ever saw Mr. Speed, but even in her old age Elizabeth is still clearly affected by him. The story ends: “It was only the other night that I dreamed I was a little girl on Church Street again and that there was a drunk horse in our yard.”
Elizabeth’s brother is intelligent and kind. In one scene with incestuous overtones, Elizabeth hugs her brother in her bedroom, crying but also wishing that he would strike her. He tells Elizabeth that she will get used to Mr. Speed “for all his ugliness.”
The narrator of the story, Elizabeth is an elderly spinster recalling her adolescent years. As a youth she lived with her brother and father in a comfortable, large house. She is also repulsed by, but strangely obsessed with, the town drunk, Mr. Speed.
Various critical readings exist regarding Elizabeth: first, she is searching for a feminine maternal presence in her life; second, that the grotesque Mr. Speed introduces the harshness of adult life to young Elizabeth; third, Elizabeth’s only view of sexuality comes from intimidating male figures. All of these readings, and others, imply that the events of these critical years cause Elizabeth to become a spinster later in life.
A widower, Elizabeth’s father is an important male presence; she feels affection for him yet connects him with the grotesque Mr. Speed. In the end, Elizabeth’s father is displeased with his daughter’s decision to turn Mr. Speed over to the police.
Lucy is the African-American housekeeper at Elizabeth’s house. She also appears at the critical moment of the story’s conclusion, pleading with Elizabeth to stay away from Mr. Speed. Elizabeth defies Lucy and chooses to confront him, suggesting that perhaps Mr. Speed and Lucy represent opposite emotions, such as security and fear.
See Mr. Speed
Although he never speaks an entire sentence, Mr. Speed is nonetheless a critical character in this story. He intimidates and repulses the young Elizabeth, and she is alarmed to find similarities between Mr. Speed and her brother and father. The story’s climax occurs when he bursts into Elizabeth’s house. She calls the police, and he is arrested.
Mr. Speed may represent many things to Elizabeth, among them masculinity, the consequences of alcoholism, and the deterioration of Southern society. Even his name suggests that he “speeds” Elizabeth’s maturation or “speeds” her toward some unpleasant sexual initiation or toward spinsterhood.
Growth and Development
That Elizabeth recalls so vividly the events recorded in “A Spinster’s Tale”—in particular her discovery of Mr. Speed as well as her ultimate
Topics for Further Study
- Watch the 1942 Orson Welles film The Magnificent Ambersons or read John Cheever’s short story “The Fourth Alarm.” These two works, like “A Spinster’s Tale,” make references to the advent of automobiles and to the general themes of changing technology and changing times. Compare and contrast how each work addresses changes in society or technology.
- View D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation or the classic 1939 film Gone With the Wind. How do these films depict the South? How do these films depict women and African Americans? What similarities are there between the character Scarlett O’Hara, in Gone With the Wind and Elizabeth in “A Spinster’s Tale”? What are the major differences?
- Read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a nonfiction memoir of growing up in Arkansas from an African American perspective. Compare some of Angelou’s experiences with Elizabeth’s. Despite their racial differences, are there any similarities between Elizabeth and Angelou?
confrontation with him—indicates that these are pivotal moments in her youth. It can also be inferred that these events affected Elizabeth for the rest of her life.
Coming to terms with her family—including her late mother—as she is growing up seems to be Elizabeth’s unspoken mission throughout this story. She recalls suggestive, ambiguous scenes with her brother (in her bedroom when she pleads loneliness, then wishes he would strike her) and father (when he tells Elizabeth to close her eyes to Mr. Speed) that describe her attempts to understand them.
When Elizabeth reports Mr. Speed to the police, it seems her father’s disapproval of this act is as important as the act itself. It suggests (along with Elizabeth’s spinsterhood) that growing up was confusing for Elizabeth, and these events may have stunted her, sexually and socially, for life.
One way to read “A Spinster’s Tale” is to view it as Elizabeth’s unsuccessful search for a proper female role model. A young girl raised in a house of men, it is apparent from her odd dreams and her vivid descriptions of Mr. Speed’s drunkenness that Elizabeth is fearful of masculinity—especially in light of her own budding femininity. However, she has a strong attachment to her father and brother—who both drink, (although considerably less than Mr. Speed does)—and is concerned how alcohol affects them.
She also seeks an answer to the crucial question: what is the appropriate way for a young woman to act in a male-dominated household? At times she is coquettish, even alluring (the bedroom scene with her brother); or cute and defiant (when she bursts into the parlor and “flirts” with a young boy); or assertive (threatening to report the family cook to the police); and finally, sometimes powerless and scared (revealing her loneliness and her fear of Mr. Speed).
Nonetheless, Elizabeth’s final act—reporting Mr. Speed to the police—seems to be her most significant one. Because Elizabeth has become a spinster, this final action, reveals that Elizabeth never learned how to act appropriately in her father’s eyes.
A feminist reading of “A Spinster’s Tale” might even suggest that since women are expected to be silent and demure, Elizabeth’s ability to assert authority made her unattractive to men, who expect women to act in a more subservient way.
Several critics have noted the importance of sexual issues in “A Spinster’s Tale.” Given Elizabeth’s confusion over masculinity, it is not surprising that at different times she seems both attracted and repelled by sexuality. This is consistent with the passive-aggressive nature of her behavior.
Mr. Speed represents negative male attributes: he is ugly, clumsy, and forceful. Furthermore, Taylor highlights the prominence of his cane, which could be perceived as a phallic symbol. Elizabeth’s ultimate fate as a spinster suggests that she never was able to fully discard her fearful view of masculinity—or perhaps her fear of sex—since her mother died after giving birth to a stillborn child, directly linking both sex and birth to death.
Still, throughout the story there are times when Elizabeth is attracted to men. For example, Elizabeth seems sexually assertive when she bursts into the parlor and is then accused of “flirting.” Some critics have pointed out the importance of doorways in this story, which could be seen as a simulation of the sexual act of penetration.
More disturbing are the incestuous overtones in the scene with her brother in the bedroom. Elizabeth’s desire to be struck could be viewed as a desire for some form of sexual contact; however, since in her youthful confusion she cannot discriminate between sexual violence and gentleness, or family love and sexual love, she seeks to combine them. Taylor’s details—the way he describes Elizabeth’s hair, up or down, or her speech, as languid or fearful—also support a reading of Elizabeth as conflicted over sexual matters.
Peter Taylor’s fiction is set in the American South. His “A Spinster’s Tale” is set in Nashville, where the Taylor family lived for several years. Another autobiographical aspect is socio-economic status; Taylor’s and Elizabeth’s families are wealthy and privileged. Elizabeth’s home is comfortable and staffed with several “Negro” servants and cooks. The use of the word “Negro” provides insight into the setting, as well as the era, since this is what African Americans were commonly called in the early part of the twentieth century.
At that time, discriminatory practices limited opportunities for African Americans in the South. One of the few jobs available was as domestic help. Racial segregation is obvious when Elizabeth reveals that her father’s secretary lives in an area she casually refers to as “nigger town.” This indicates how widespread views of racial inferiority were, as does Mr. Speed’s constant refrain “nigger, nigger,” during the story’s climax.
Point of View
Since “A Spinster’s Tale” is told exclusively from Elizabeth’s point of view, it can be assumed that these events have affected her in a profound way and that she might not be aware of certain motivations. Therefore we cannot depend on Elizabeth to explain certain events objectively.
For example, many critics have noted that the scene in which she hugs and cries to her drunk brother in her bedroom appears to have certain sexual overtones. (“I stood straight in my white nightgown with my black hair hanging over my shoulders. ... I beckoned to him.”) Yet Elizabeth, even in her old age, (which is when the story is being told) can’t be relied upon to point out such suggestive facts. So what she does not reveal, and does not remember, should be examined as closely as what she does.
Symbolism and Imagery
Taylor’s symbolism and imagery may be the richest, most revealing aspect of “A Spinster’s Tale.” For example, Mr. Speed’s role in the story is symbolic. Some critics suggest that he represents a grotesque exaggeration of Elizabeth’s brother and father, a personification of her fears of male sexuality and masculinity. Others read the story from a Freudian psychological standpoint and perceive phallic symbols in Mr. Speed’s walking cane, which Taylor makes references to several times.
Alcohol is also a symbol that links Elizabeth’s father and brother with Mr. Speed. Early in the story Elizabeth recalls her mother telling her son that she would rather see him in his grave than see him drunk. When the men are drunk, they become belligerent and unmanageable. Some critics also link the loosened inhibitions that alcohol consumption causes with possible sexual abuse in “A Spinster’s Tale”.
Imagery is also important in “A Spinster’s Tale.” Specifically, Taylor makes many references to light and warmth, which often precede important scenes which depict either fear or escape. Early in the story, Elizabeth sets some logs in the hearth on fire and watches the flames until her face gets hot. Then she looks into the mirror, seeking to disappear into it. Soon afterwards, Mr. Speed makes an appearance.
Several references are made to Elizabeth’s mother. These references are often made at frightening moments for her. Since her mother is dead it appears Elizabeth sorely misses the security of her mother.
One final important technique Taylor uses to convey important symbols is dream memories. Elizabeth’s dreams (of a drunken horse, of men flocking to see a girl with big hands, who hides them under her skirt) also convey a fear of sexuality and masculinity. The large hands in the dream may be her father’s, representing the possibility of his having sexually abused Elizabeth. The hands under her skirt may be her own, as Elizabeth is confused and blames herself for the abuse.
“A Spinster’s Tale” is told in a very complex way. Even though it is apparent that the events in the story take place around 1914 or so—the Spanish-American War of the late 1890s is still a fresh memory to Elizabeth’s father and “the possibilities of a general war” are referred to, foreshadowing World War I—the story is told much later. Elizabeth is telling the story as an elderly spinster, many years after the events of the story.
With that in mind, it is clear that Taylor is interested in exploring the time when the events of the story take place, rather than when Elizabeth is actually recalling them. The main theme of the story—Elizabeth’s exploration of her family and her attempts to make sense of what the town drunk, Mr. Speed, means to her—are rather timeless themes. However, as is the case with most of Taylor’s fiction, the American South is featured prominently; from a historical perspective, this is important in several ways.
With the story set fifty years before the Civil Rights movement, “A Spinster’s Tale” provides insight into the racially segregated South of the first half of the twentieth century. This can be seen in the abundance of “Negro” (the accepted term for African Americans at the time) domestic servants. Often deprived of the opportunities to work challenging, lucrative jobs, many black women and men worked as servants. Lucy, the family servant, is the most visible black character in the story.
In the early part of the twentieth century, when the events in “A Spinster’s Tale” take place, most African Americans resided in Southern states such as Tennessee. Yet, it is clear that none live in Elizabeth’s middle to upper-class neighborhood. Elizabeth even makes reference to “nigger town,” which tells us not only of the racial separation that kept the races apart, but also the casual way in which a young girl would use what has today become an offensive racial slur.
Mr. Speed also repeats the word “nigger” during the story’s climax. This passing reference shows how deeply ingrained certain racial attitudes were, when “A Spinster’s Tale” takes place, and even when Taylor published it, in 1940.
“A Spinster’s Tale” is also historically specific in its vague references to what Elizabeth calls a “horseless carriage.” This is a reference to an early model automobile. Its novelty is evident by the way the automobile is discussed: when it is revealed that someone owns such a “machine,” it is considered an event to ride in it. The car is not used just to get from one place to another, simply driving in it is adventurous enough.
Taylor also provides us with additional insight into the types of profound questions the advent of the automobile raised. Elizabeth recalls that automobile owners had to proceed with some tact, because they were often “uncertain of our family’s prejudices regarding machines.” As is the case with many inventions throughout history, as the automobiles garnered more and more attention, some people felt obliged to oppose the impact that it might have on society. The automobile could have offended Elizabeth’s father—it does not, and several of the boys eventually go for a ride. This fairly minor scene is a fascinating glimpse into a world without the traffic jams, red lights, and highway accidents which are viewed as so common today.
Taylor often focuses on the changes that occurred in Southern life over the decades of the early twentieth century, specifically in the changing lifestyles and forgotten traditions that resulted from the rapid urbanization of the region. Such changes are not so evident in “A Spinster’s Tale,” though some critics have spotted it. For example, Mr. Speed may represent the utter breakdown of civilized society, and the refusal of Elizabeth’s brother and father to see this acknowledges their complicity in this breakdown.
There are also suggestions of a cultural clash in the parlor scene when Elizabeth’s uncles are portrayed
Compare & Contrast
- 1914: At the time the story is set, the American South is strictly segregated. African Americans are denied opportunities to work challenging, lucrative jobs; as a result, many work as servants.
Today: As a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, many discriminatory laws and customs are challenged and eliminated. For example, laws that support segregation no longer exist; African Americans have every legal right and opportunity to pursue jobs and housing.
- 1914: The automobile is a rare sight outside of major cities. Yet with the growing popularity of automobile travel, people are able to move around faster and more efficiently.
Today: Automobiles have become prevalent in American society. With the car culture comes the traffic jams, red lights, suburban sprawl, and highway accidents.
- 1914: American culture dictates that women marry and have children; because Elizabeth never marries, she is considered strange and outside of the norm. In general, to be a spinster is something to be avoided.
Today: Many traditional values do not carry the social stigma they once did. For example, the marriage rate has dropped consistently throughout the decade; cohabitation is accepted and even encouraged. The concept of spinsterhood is considered archaic and outdated.
as somewhat tactless, accepting “with-the-greatest-of-pleasure what really had not been an invitation at all” to ride in the car. This suggests that Elizabeth’s uncles, in their fascination with the automobile, are not as refined as the machine’s owners.
“I thought how awkward all of the members of my own family appeared on occasions that called for grace,” Elizabeth reports, again suggesting that while her family is wealthy, they lack a certain style. This signifies their position as a traditional family tied to the past, facing the future with a mixture of uncertainty and clumsy wonder.
In 1948 the great American author, Robert Penn Warren, wrote an introduction to A Long Fourth, and Other Stories, Taylor’s first collection of short fiction. In the essay, Warren places “A Spinster’s Tale” within the context of Taylor’s fiction, highlighting both the importance of family as well as the presence of a first person narrator.
Taylor’s best work, Warren writes, employs “a natural style, one based on conversation and the family tale, with the echo of the spoken word, with the texture of some narrator’s mind.”
In a review in the New York Times Book Review that same year, the reviewer also lauds Taylor’s short fiction, commenting that “A Spinster’s Tale” mirrors “the deterioration of family life . . . through a girl’s developing neurosis.. ..”
In a lengthy essay which appeared in the Sewanee Review in 1962, the writer and critic Ashley Brown found in Taylor’s first collection of stories “the thematic unity of (James Joyce’s) Dubliners: childhood, youth, marriage, and maturity....”
Brown also explores the “dissolution of the family” theme in “A Spinster’s Tale,” and notes that Elizabeth’s plight is that of “a motherless child ... misplaced in a masculine household. Her gentle father and her amiably drunken brother and her uncles cannot replace the balance lost by the death of her mother. The equilibrium of this family, where
old-fashioned courtly manners still prevail ... is deceptive, simply because the masculine courtesy has no true challenge from the other sex, and Elizabeth, being young, is discouraged by this masculine indirection.”
Brown views Mr. Speed as a symbol of “the breakdown of civilized behavior,” which the men in the story choose not to acknowledge. “Thus Mr. Speed becomes to Elizabeth the symbol of brutality and indifference which she finds in all men.”
By the 1970s, some critics began to view Taylor’s work as skilled, but limited in scope; they suggested that the Southern themes he is so concerned with have been explored by too many other writers. One critic wrote, “[E]nough of the eccentric or incestuous families tending to their faded houses and lives.”
But critic Jan Pinkerton countered such criticism, contending that there are important universal themes in Taylor’s short fiction, which transcend strictly Southern interpretations. Pinkerton uses “A Spinster’s Tale” to illustrate the fact that Taylor’s work is not bound to the South, writing that the story “is a tale of frigidity and of the inevitability of spinsterhood, a subject, incidentally, that has been more frequently associated with New England than the South. Region, in other words, is secondary here....”
Pinkerton, in a later essay published in Kansas Quarterly, focuses specifically on “A Spinster’s Tale,” acknowledging that some of the themes in the story may no longer be considered noteworthy, and that critics “reject as outdated” certain aspects of the story which may be associated with “Victorian” fiction from a century earlier.
Nonetheless, Pinkerton finds aspects of “A Spinster’s Tale” not only relevant, but also “modern,” particularly the way Elizabeth’s assertiveness is discouraged. “Her feminine lifestyle ... can be preserved not by ignoring or avoiding the dreaded opposite lifestyle, but by learning how to defend against it.”
She later asks rhetorically: “So do we have here ... the story of the rise of a no longer fearful, but rather, fear-inducing female?” By applying what could be viewed as a feminist reading to “A Spinster’s Tale,” Pinkerton is hoping to preserve the story’s relevance for an age when women in general are more assertive, and to perhaps illustrate the changes that have occurred only in recent years.
Still, Pinkerton acknowledges that this story “despite skillful telling, may well be headed for oblivion.”
Critics continue to interpret “A Spinster’s Tale” from a psychological point of view. In 1988, Roland Sodowsky and Gargi Roysircar Sodowsky, using models set forth by the prominent psychologists Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, are able to interpret Elizabeth two distinct ways: she may be seen as trapped by sexual fears and the constraints of a relationship between child and parent; or alternatively, she can be perceived as controlling her role in her family.
These separate readings suggest a basic difficulty in interpreting “A Spinster’s Tale”: is Elizabeth a victim of her various problems or does she conquer them?
The author has stated that “A Spinster’s Tale” is one of his favorite stories. It “may be one of my best,” Taylor stated in a 1973 interview, “but I hate to admit it. It was written right at the beginning, and no one likes to think he hasn’t gotten better.”
Deignan has been a teaching assistant in American Cultural Studies at Bowling Green State University. In the following essay, he argues that sexual conflict is the primary theme of “A Spinster’s Tale.”
Critics tend to focus on the sexual themes in Peter Taylor’s “A Spinster’s Tale,” especially as it relates to the budding femininity of young Elizabeth. This discussion seems pertinent when the reader learns that Elizabeth grew up without a mother, has a difficult time with men, and never marries.
It is clear that Elizabeth loves her father and brother, but at the same time she seems to fear certain aspects of their personalities; specifically, she is concerned with similarities between her father and brother and the repugnant Mr. Speed. “As their voices grew louder and merrier, my courage slackened,” Elizabeth recalls. “It was then I first put into words the thought that in my brother and father I saw something of Mr. Speed. And I knew it was more than a taste for whiskey they had in common.”
Such comments, when combined with other aspects of “A Spinster’s Tale”—Elizabeth’s growth into a young women, her irrational fear of Mr. Speed (who, some critics note, is associated with several sexual symbols, such as the phallic cane), and her curious desire to be struck by her brother—make it clear that sexual conflict is one of the major themes of this work.
It is also possible that not only is such a conflict the most important theme in “A Spinster’s Tale,” but that something much more horrific has taken place. Perhaps “A Spinster’s Tale” is a tragedy about a father’s sexual abuse of his young daughter, who is vigorously attempting to repress her memory of these acts.
Such an interpretation may seem far-fetched. Elizabeth’s father, after all, may be clumsy at times, but he seems to be a likable character, hardly one to commit such an awful crime. And yet, the very aspect of the story which makes any sexual reading so uncomfortable—Elizabeth’s youth—may begin to point in the direction of repressed molestation. Such a reading makes Elizabeth’s resulting spinsterhood and her inability to connect with men much more dramatic and painful.
What Do I Read Next?
- Considered a masterpiece, The Diary of Anne Frank is an actual diary written by a young Jewish girl before she was taken away by the Nazis during World War II. Some of the more memorable passages in the diary are about the difficulties of growing up and dealing with family members.
- William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) depicts the changing landscape of the American South in the early 1900s.
- Conversations with Peter Taylor, published in 1987, is a collection of interviews with the author of “A Spinster’s Tale.” These pieces provide insight into Taylor’s thought processes as an artist. Also, Parting the Curtains (1994) is a book of interviews with many Southern writers, including Taylor, Eleanor Ross, Shelby Foote, Maya Angelou, Pat Conroy, and William Styron.
- There are many studies of Taylor’s life and work, including most recently, Critical Essays on Peter Taylor (1993). Another critical study, Southern Accents: The Fiction of Peter Taylor, written by Catherine Clark Graham, was published in 1994.
Early in the story, Elizabeth makes an important distinction: her brother’s drinking frightens her, yet “those nights put a scaredness into me that was clearly distinguishable from the terror that Mr. Speed instilled by stumbling past our house. ...” So Mr. Speed, for an unknown reason, is clearly more threatening than her brother.
Elizabeth then notes that “by allowing him the ’Mr.’” she seeks to “humanize and soften the monster that was forever passing our house....” In this way, Elizabeth both eases her fear of Speed, and transforms him into a deformed authority figure.
The next sentence is important: “My father would point him out through the wide parlor window....” Elizabeth later notes that her father, while drinking with her brother and uncles, would refer to Mr. Speed “in a blustering tone of merry tolerance: ’There goes Old Speed, again. That rascal!’” Elizabeth is annoyed at her father’s “tolerance,” and prepares for the “inevitable day when I should have to speak of (Mr. Speed) to someone.”
Elizabeth reveals that it is her father who first points Mr. Speed out to her, that she doesn’t care for his tolerance of Mr. Speed’s behavior, and that Mr. Speed represents something profoundly unsettling to her. This could be an indication that Elizabeth has shifted her mixture of love and loathing—which her father’s sexual violation has inspired—onto Mr. Speed. This may begin to explain her intense fear of him. His ugliness symbolizes and personifies Elizabeth’s repressed knowledge of her father’s acts. This may be one reason she uses the authoritative “Mr.” to refer to Speed.
It also may explain the curious scene before the mirror, when Elizabeth craves to be taken ” A-way-a-way....” Here, the sexual and emotional confusion caused by her father’s sexual violation has overwhelmed her. And whom does Elizabeth see at that moment, gazing out the window? “I beheld Mr. Speed,” she reports. He was walking, “cursing the trees as he passed them, giving each a lick with his heavy walking cane.” Elizabeth is scared, her “breath came short, and I clasped the black bow at the neck of my middy blouse.”
Many important elements suggest that Elizabeth is repressing sexual abuse: her confused desire for escape but inability to articulate why, the presence of the hateful Mr. Speed and his phallic cane, her inexplicable movement to cover up her blouse. Also, it seems that Elizabeth’s defenses—denial and repression—are starting to crack.
Indeed, it is important to note that Elizabeth is maturing constantly throughout the story. (She notes at one point, “my legs had got too long this summer to stretch out straight on the settee.”) Thus, she may only now be becoming aware of the unacceptable nature of her sexual relationship with her father; her behavior suggests that she is confused. After all this is her father, a man she is supposed to love unconditionally, regardless of what he might be doing to her. That he seems a loving father can only complicate things more—for Elizabeth, as well as for the reader.
Elizabeth’s ambivalence is clearly illustrated in the bedroom scene with her brother. He is drunk, suggesting a loss of inhibition. Elizabeth’s mother despised drinking, as Elizabeth does. Furthermore, it is drinking that initially raises questions about Mr. Speed’s relation to her father and brother. As the most persistent drunk in the story, Mr. Speed embodies the least inhibited, most threatening potential of men—such as a sexual relationship with one’s own daughter.
In the bedroom scene, Elizabeth wakes up when her brother comes home drunk. She “smiled at him and beckoned,” as he stumbles up the stairs. Twice, Elizabeth notes (as she does always with Mr. Speed) the redness of her brother’s face. “I stood in my white nightgown,” Elizabeth says, “with my black hair hanging over my shoulders....”
He asks if she’s “been reading something you shouldn’t,” before she throws her arms around him, confessing, “I‘m always lonely.” The scene is quite tender up to this point, as Elizabeth’s brother attempts to conceal his drunkenness and offers to play with her the next day.
Then he “stood up and looked at me curiously, as though in some way repelled by my settling so comfortable in the covers.” Elizabeth’s demands seem to have shaken her brother, which matches a pattern through the story: when Elizabeth is assertive, she is encouraged to be more passive.
This can suggest any number of things. Regarding the thesis of this essay, perhaps Elizabeth, at this moment, believes acting in a sexual way with family members is somewhat normal. She even says that she smells her brother’s whiskey, but that it “was not repugnant to me.” She then expresses a desire to be struck and wishes she had indicated to her brother “that we had in common some unmentionable trouble.”
Many critics have written of the “incestuous overtones” of this scene. It appears her brother’s
“And yet, the very aspect of the story which makes any sexual reading so uncomfortable—Elizabeth’s youth--may begin to point in the direction of repressed molestation.”
look of shock has jolted Elizabeth into realizing such sexual behavior around family members is not appropriate. And yet, she cannot deny her love (sexual or otherwise) for her brother. Indicating her intense confusion, Elizabeth simply combines affection and punishment. She wants contact with her brother but seems, on some level, to comprehend the forbidden nature of such behavior.
For Elizabeth, getting hit by her brother at that point would be not only a way to express love, but also a punishment for her feelings. That she desires to share an “unmentionable trouble” with her brother suggests not only that something intense is being repressed, but also that Elizabeth is perhaps starting to comprehend the roots of her confusion—her father’s violation of her and her brother’s silent complicity.
Indeed, later she admits that she “had come to accept (Mr. Speed’s) existence as a natural part of my life.” Since Mr. Speed represents a displaced awareness of Elizabeth’s father’s sexual violation, this may be one of the saddest lines in the entire story. Elizabeth has resigned herself to living with this horrible abuse. And her brother is not innocent either, for he also says of Mr. Speed: “You’ll get used to him, for all his ugliness.”
It is additionally important to note that Elizabeth shares her mother’s name; moreover, she maintains that “from day to day, I began to take my place as a mistress in our motherless household.” This suggests that Elizabeth seems to have become a sort of surrogate mother/wife in this house. As the sole female family member in the house, perhaps her father viewed his desire for her as almost normal—especially now that his wife (and natural sex partner) is dead.
Elizabeth’s own warm (warmth is a key image) affection for her mother can be seen, then, not only as affection for a lost mother, but also a desire for protection from her father that is no longer available. “I remembered only the warmth of the cheek and the comfort of that moment,” Elizabeth says recalling her mother. This is contrasted with the perverted love of her father.
Also, it should be noted that after pleading to the mirror for escape, then seeing Mr. Speed, “a sudden inexplicable memory of my mother’s cheek and a vision of her” strikes Elizabeth. At moments when she is forced to confront her father’s abuse, symbolized by Mr. Speed, Elizabeth always seems to call upon an image of her mother to delay confrontation.
Elizabeth’s dreams also suggest serious sexual violations; in one dream, some men come to see a girl with big hands and the girl decides to hide them under her skirt. The big hands may, in fact, be Elizabeth’s father’s, but guilt and confusion forces Elizabeth to blame herself for the violation. Thus, she believes the hands under her skirt are the girl’s own.
Yet Elizabeth does not fear her father. In a critical scene near the end of the story, she runs to her father, with other family members in the room, proclaiming of Mr. Speed “I‘m afraid of him.... He’s always drunk!” Elizabeth then confides that she “was eager to tell (her father) just exactly how fearful I was of Mr. Speed’s coming into our house.” This scene could be viewed as a confrontation. Again, if Mr. Speed represents her own father’s deviant sexuality, than Elizabeth is, in a sense, proclaiming her displeasure at the situation. She no longer wants her father to treat her in such unnatural ways.
Her father cuts her off, telling her she “had no business watching Mr. Speed, that I must shut my eyes to some things. ’After all,’ he said... ’you’re a young lady now.’” Elizabeth’s father is, in effect, issuing an order here: don’t confront this issue (Mr. Speed/sexual violation), repress it.
So Elizabeth’s assertiveness has been quashed, and she is now “accustomed to thinking that there was something in my brother’s and in my father’s natures that was fully in sympathy with the very brutality of (Mr. Speed’s) drunkenness.” In refusing to hear her concerns about Mr. Speed, both her brother and father refuse to face up to Elizabeth’s abuse.
Elizabeth is a bold girl and because she is growing older and more aware, she will continue to explore ways to confront this issue. Her confidence grows during the scene with the kitchen help (which also foreshadows the story’s climax) when Elizabeth, at the height of her assertiveness, threatens to call the police. She realizes the power in this threat, and decides that she will use this same threat against Mr. Speed when he comes into the house.
Again, this climactic scene fits a pattern found throughout “A Spinster’s Tale.” Mr. Speed breaks though the doorway violently. (Many entrances through doorways occur in this story, and many critics have suggested a possible link to the act of sexual penetration.) References are yet again made to his red face and his cane, and Elizabeth realizes that perhaps “it was the last time I ever experienced the inconsolable desperation of childhood.”
However, even as she leaves childhood behind with this final overt violation, Elizabeth longs “to hide my face away from this in my own mother’s bosom.” Yet another part of her “was making me deal with Mr. Speed ... myself.” Indeed, she has called the police station, asserted herself, and, symbolically anyway, confronted her father’s mistreatment of her.
It is no surprise, then, that Elizabeth’s father is displeased. In his world, acknowledgment of such heinous acts amounts to bad behavior. Elizabeth has confronted her father, and indeed, he has sealed off the doorway, suggesting perhaps an end to his sexual abuse of her.
The fact that Elizabeth becomes a spinster is significant. In dealing with the effects of a lost, abused childhood, perhaps the following passage provides a terrible, conclusive insight. “What ever did happen to Speed’s old-maid sister?’ my uncle the doctor said. ’She’s still with him,’ Father said.”
As an old maid herself, the terrible actions and memories that Mr. Speed represents have remained with Elizabeth and always will. “It was only the other night that I dreamed I was a little girl... again and that there was a drunk horse in our yard,” the story’s last line reads.
As they have throughout the story, such dream images prove the fact that Elizabeth is still haunted by the scary, violent images of her childhood.
Source: Tom Deignan, “Overview of ‘A Spinster’s Tale,”’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.
Roland Sodowsky and Gargi Roysircar Sodowsky
At the time this article was published, Gargi Roysircar Sodowsky was a pre-doctoral Intern in Counseling Psychology at Iowa State University, and Roland Sodowsky was Associate Professor of English at Sul Ross State University, Alpine, Texas. In the following excerpt, the critics present two differing psychological interpretations of Betsy.
Several critics have noted the depth and richness of the characters in Peter Taylor’s work, a complexity which makes his stories particularly apt for psychological interpretation. An especially good example is “A Spinster’s Tale,” in which the protagonist, Betsy, may be seen from a Freudian point of view as being trapped by the forces of parent-child relationships and sexual fears or from an Adlerian point of view as choosing and controlling the unsocial direction of her life.
Set in an upper-class home in Nashville around 1900, “Spinster’s Tale” is narrated by an unmarried woman named Elizabeth who recalls events beginning with her mother’s death and ending about a year later, shortly after her fourteenth birthday. Her mother has died a few days after bearing a stillborn child. Elizabeth, called Betsy by her eighteen-year-old brother, lives with her father, brother, and several servants. During a moment of grief one afternoon about six months after her mother’s death, the girl observes an old man passing the house, red-faced, drunk, stumbling and cursing. Seeing this man, Mr. Speed, causes her to become “dry-eyed in my fright” and to remember vividly the burial of the stillborn infant and a few minutes spent with her mother just before her death. Betsy recognizes Mr. Speed as a “permanent and formidable figure in my life which I would be called upon to deal with,” and thereafter she observes him from the parlor window each time he passes, even though the sight of him makes her teeth chatter. Much of the rest of the story consists of variations of this basic pattern in which the terrified girl watches the old man, anticipating the day when he will come to her door.
In one variation, Betsy stands at the door of her bedroom late at night while her drunken brother, whom she intuits as a less menacing version of Mr. Speed, climbs the stairs. With apparent incestuous intent, she entices him into her bedroom. Thinking about the encounter later, she wishes she had made him aware of “some unmentionable trouble” they have in common. In another variation, she learns the unwelcome lesson that her brother and Mr. Speed
“Betsy is not the victim of causality, but rather the pilot of her dreams and of the direction of her life as well. In her own terms, she has achieved ’equal superiority’ over Mr. Speed, her brother, and therefore all men.”
are more alike than she had thought. In another, just after the girl’s father and uncles jokingly accuse her of flirting with a boy, Mr. Speed appears outside and she becomes hysterical.
In the final variation, Mr. Speed, caught in a rainstorm, actually enters the house, frightening both Betsy and Lucy, a maid. After letting him in, the maid flees up the stairs, but Betsy calls the police. The old man tries to leave but falls from the porch and is knocked unconscious. The police find him thus a few minutes later and take him away.
“Spinster’s Tale” is replete with objects and actions for which, in his discussion of dream symbols in The Interpretation of Dreams [in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. A. A. Brill, 1938], Sigmund Freud assigns various sexual meanings. A study of Betsy’s reactions to these symbols suggests that despite the lonely girl’s desperate attempts to deal with the phenomena these symbols represent, she cannot adjust to them. Instead, she projects her unacceptable, frightening sexual impulses to external dangers. Thus she fears maleness and male sexuality and thereby copes projectively and unconsciously with her fears, although in a deviant manner.
Except for a flashback to the burial of the stillborn infant, the girl is never seen outside the house, which she repeatedly describes as “shadowy,” the dream-like setting thus making an interpretation in Freudian terms especially appropriate. Although her father, brother, and the servants also occupy the house, she persistently calls it “my house,” “my door,” to which Mr. Speed will eventually come, reminding one of Freud’s symbolization of persons as male organs, of the house as body, doors as apertures, and rooms as female; churches too are equated with the vagina, and Betsy’s house is on Church Street. Mr. Speed carries a top coat, a later version of the cloak, one of Freud’s phallic symbols, and a heavy walking cane, also phallic, with which he beats the trees or pokes at the “soft sod along the sidewalk.” When the March wind blows off his hat, another male genital symbol, it rolls across the lawn toward the house. And when he finally does come to the door, he raps on it with his cane. Once inside, however, he throws the cane on the floor in an apparent gesture of defeat.
Betsy unconsciously defends herself, displacing her guilty, fearful attraction for Mr. Speed upon her brother, a safer target. She remembers her brother in terms of phallic images. He shows her “a box of cigarettes which a girl had given him”; he chases after and returns Mr. Speed’s hat, thus identifying himself more closely in Betsy’s eyes with the old man; in her white nightgown, symbolizing chastity, she watches her brother from her bedroom doorway as he comes up the stairs, stumbling like Mr. Speed, “putting his white forefinger to his red face”; after he has climbed the stairs, an act symbolizing coitus, and entered her room, she remembers “something like a longing for my brother to strike me,” but since he does not and therefore does not symbolically enter her, she presumably has failed to cope with her fears.
She also remembers the box, a female symbol, containing the stillborn infant when it is buried, and she associates it in a rapid sequence of images with Mr. Speed, who apparently epitomizes maleness, with her last moments with her mother, and with her mother’s death, which her “memory did not dwell upon.” When Mr. Speed finally enters the house, one assumes Betsy cannot help but react as she does. The maid Lucy, who could be but is not Betsy’s surrogate mother, pleads with Betsy to climb the stairs, that is, to perform, in Freudian terms, a symbolic coital act. Instead, she reacts unconsciously, circling defensively behind Mr. Speed to telephone the police, thereby repressing her desire for the male “invasion.” A few minutes later Mr. Speed’s “limp body” is taken away.
Betsy sees herself as having acted with a mixture of cruelty and courage, and instead of being fearful of or attracted to Mr. Speed, she both despises and pities the old man lying unconscious in the mud. In the last paragraph the narrator says, “... my hatred of what he had stood for in my eyes has never left me ... not a week has passed but that he has been brought to my mind by one thing or another.” The child Betsy may appear to have been victorious, but in Freudian terms the adult Elizabeth is the regressing victim of the girl’s failure to overcome her terror.
An Adlerian point of view leads to a different conclusion. According to Alfred Adler [in The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A Systematic Presentation in Selections from His Writings, ed. H. L. Ansbacher and R. R. Ansbacher, 1956], the biological and environmental “givens”—for example, Betsy’s plain looks, adolescent stirrings, and isolation in a discouraging male world—are recreated by a person with her “private logic” to attain “success”: “Experiences, traumata, and sexual developmental mechanisms cannot yield an explanation, but the perspective in which they are regarded ... which subordinates all life to the final goal, can do so.” In Superiority and Social Interest  Adler sees the neurotic as striving toward a goal of superiority in order to overcome past and current feelings of inferiority. Rather than reacting automatically to events which determine her to be a spinster, Betsy is actively carving out her niche in the world, a niche that in her eyes is inferior to none. Betsy’s fear of heterosexual intimacy, for example, may express the direction she is taking to attain her goal of superiority over men.
From this point of view, the incidents from her puberty that the narrator recalls are important not in themselves but because she remembers them and because of the way the girl Betsy chooses to respond to them. In Individual Psychology Adler says, “There are no chance memories. Out of the incalculable number of impressions which meet an individual, he chooses to remember only those which he feels, however darkly, to have a bearing on his situation.” The narrator’s selective re-collection of pubescent experiences mirrors her present biases and view of life, and, as the story’s title suggests (“A Spinster’s Tale”), her reconstruction of events does not necessarily correspond to the historical truth. The purposeful delving into the past has the power of repetitive rehearsals or of a self-fulfilling prophecy, expressing the narrator’s intention of continuing with the symbolic, spinster-like life of her youth. These memories, Adler says, a person “... repeats to himself... to keep him concentrated on his goal, and to prepare him by means of past experiences, so that he will meet the future with an already tested style of action.”
When Betsy is frightened by Mr. Speed, her ultimate symbol of maleness, for example, she construes the image of her dead mother, whom she remembers as wan, smiling, gentle, and religious—the opposite of the stumbling drunk. By symbiotically escaping into this idealized memory, Betsy sidesteps a social problem—confrontation with the old man and thereby with males in general—thus avoiding possible defeat or humiliation in a relationship. In choosing “not to dwell upon” the memory of her mother’s death, Betsy thus denies it, as well as the challenges of adolescence, i.e. the stepping toward new freedom and adult responsibilities. Betsy calls her memories of her mother “sudden and inexplicable” but they are neither: they manifest her preference for nonexistence, passivity, and social withdrawal. After seeing Mr. Speed the first time, Betsy stands “cold and silent,” a metaphorical and literal expression of her chosen life style.
Betsy recalls that her mother severely condemned drinking before her death, an attitude not shared by her brother or by her father, who has toddies with her uncles every Saturday afternoon. Her father calls “Old Speed” a “rascal” with “merry tolerance,” but simultaneously warns her brother of the consequences of drinking by using Mr. Speed as a bad example. Betsy cannot identify with her father’s contradictory attitude and the well-defined masculine pattern he establishes in the house. She wonders whether he ever thinks of her mother, since he never mentions her. She seems to accuse him of indifference, saying “... in a year I had forgotten how he treated her when she had been alive.” Unable to establish satisfactory alliances with her brother or father, she replaces the human tendency for gemeinschaftsgefühl with an attitude of distrust and poor regard for her surviving family members and, ultimately, the world at large.
The development of this attitude appears clearly in the sibling rivalry between Betsy and her brother. Sober, he teases her mercilessly. Drunk, he tries to make her a conspirator by offering the passive, watchful girl candy, but she sees him as “giggling,” “bouncing,” and “silly” and refuses to compromise the attitude about drinking that she has adopted from her mother. Rudolf Dreikurs, the popularizer of Adler in the United States, says [in Psychodynamics, Psychotherapy, and Counseling, 1967] such sibling differences indicate competition and the development of different personalities. Betsy, feeling intellectually ignored by her father and class-valedictorian brother, sees her brother as the “boss” and herself as inadequate. To compete with her brother’s ruling style, she chooses the feminine avoiding style, a typical example of familial confrontation between two Adlerian types. She requests, for example, her father and brother “not to talk about war, which seemed to [her father] a natural enough request for a young lady to make.” While father and son argue on a vast diversity of male-oriented topics, Betsy quietly observes her brother or slips away because she finds the contentious dialogue unbearable.
Dreikurs points out that where one sibling succeeds, a competing sibling gives up; and where the sibling fails (the brother’s intemperance, for example), the competitor moves in, thus finding a place and significance in the family. Betsy’s behavior fits this pattern. Adler says a woman feels equal to a man she perceives as superior if she can experience herself in her “masculine protest” to be “equally superior” to him. This striving for compensatory superiority reflects an exaggerated perception of male power and recognition such as Betsy sees in her small world on Church Street. Not being brave enough to confront them, Betsy resorts to what Adler calls “depreciation tendency” (the neurotic’s tendency to enhance self-esteem by disparaging others) in order to maneuver her brother and Mr. Speed, to sneak into power struggles with them, and to inflict sly revenge in their weak moments. Betsy’s nearly incestuous encounter with her brother, for example, in which she appears uncharacteristically confident and well-rehearsed, may be an attempt to compromise him and thus gain a “victory” and revenge. Her desire for him to strike her could be seen as her search for confirmation of suspected male violence and cruelty.
Betsy has long been preparing for the “eventuality” to settle completely with Mr. Speed. The narrator recalls, “And the sort of preparation that I had been able to make [was] the clearance of all restraints and inhibitions regarding Mr. Speed in my own mind and in my relationship with my world....” The “restraints” and “inhibitions” that Betsy rids herself of are the foundations of Adler’s gemeinschaftsgefühl. Instead of giving the drunk Mr. Speed shelter in her house from the rain, Betsy, in a tone of pretended innocence, calls the police. She is keenly aware that she deals with Mr. Speed, “however wrongly,” all by herself, that is, unsocially. Her father’s curt remark, “I regret that the bluecoats were called,” underscores the disparity in father and daughter’s life attitudes.
The passive-aggressive Betsy begins to find her place and power in her family by her success in hurting others through her one-upmanship games. She discovers a way to supervise her father’s household staff by snooping around, springing out upon the unsuspecting servants, and intimidating them by threatening to call her father or the police. The narrator recalls, “In this way, from day to day, I began to take my place as mistress in our motherless household.”
Betsy’s life-style is that of a cautious, contriving busybody. Even in her nightly dreams she allows no mysteries or loose ends and “pieces together” these dreams into a “form of logic.” The fearful Betsy grows into the controlling Betsy who says, “I would complete an unfinished dream and wouldn’t know in the morning what part I dreamed and what part pieced together.” In one such dream a “big” Betsy, in control of everything, watches “little” Betsy “trembling and weeping.” Betsy then makes a “very considerable discovery” about herself—that instead of being fearful she can be feared. Betsy is not the victim of causality, but rather the pilot of her dreams and of the direction of her life as well. In her own terms, she has achieved “equal superiority” over Mr. Speed, her brother, and therefore all men. Just as the pubescent Betsy pieces together her dreams into patterns which suit her, the adult narrator continues to piece together her life in ways that, according to her private logic, reveal her to be superior and successful.
That “A Spinster’s Tale” can sustain two such disparate interpretations of its protagonist demonstrates, we feel, the profundity of Taylor’s characterization. We see in the story the dynamics of familial relationships, and little else, either shaping a girl and the woman to be or being used by the girl to shape the woman she chooses to be. The ambiguity in Taylor’s fine story is satisfying, like truth.
Source: Roland Sodowsky and Gargi Roysircar Sodowsky, “Determined Failure, Self-Styled Success: Two Views of Betsy in Peter Taylor’s ’Spinster’s Tale,”’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 49-54.
In the following excerpt, Pinkerton offers a new interpretation of“ A Spinster’s Tale.”
Egon Schwartz, demonstrating how the vagaries of Hermann Hesse’s reputation have depended on place and time [in “Hermann Hesse, The American Youth Movement, and Problems of Literary Evaluation,” PMLA, Vol. 85, 1970], suggests that literary scholarship, even when presuming to be value-free, is constantly reflecting its temporal situation, that it “is replete with unreflected values and engages in indirect evaluation all the time.” The example of Hesse, that belatedly acclaimed guru, is surely dramatic; yet, beyond even the unknown-today, adulated-tomorrow (or vice versa) stereotype, there are many other, more subtle, manifestations of temporal influence on literary scholarship and evaluation.
I shall speak of two. There is, first of all, the simple matter of subject matter. Critics have not sufficiently acknowledged the important role that “subject” plays in determining the literature that they praise or, more subtly, that they choose to write about. Secondly, there is the critical urge toward consistency, an urge which denies the established author the right to “minor” efforts. The tendency of literary scholarship is to deal with the totality of a man’s work, and thus an unimportant work by a nevertheless important writer is often given special attention and even unmerited praise. A leveling effect results: a leveling, in this case, upward.
In order to illustrate these temporal influences on literary criticism, I should like to build a demonstration case around a story that has been generally undiscussed, even though the author is a respected American contemporary (although not sufficiently “established” to require the investigation of the entire canon): Peter Taylor’s “A Spinster’s Tale.” The story is undiscussed probably because it is woefully old-fashioned—old-fashioned in subject matter, which constitutes an objection that critics are not likely to admit as an objection. I should like to formulate a hypothetical rehabilitation of the story—the sort of rehabilitation that would become necessary if Taylor were to be given establishment status. We must first look at the problem of his out-of-date subject matter and then see how, in conformity with the practice of contemporary critics, the story might be redeemed. The redemption would involve upward leveling, to bring all of the writer’s work to “classic” status—a process that takes place constantly in literary journals.
Taylor’s “A Spinster’s Tale” deals with female fear of the male, and immediately we see the problem of subject matter; what is appropriate for Clarissa or for Victorian novels seems totally quaint today. A topic far more current, in fact, is male fear of the female, although “the new chastity,” which women’s lib has been accused of promoting, might represent a topic even newer in fashion. It is true, nevertheless, that such sexually fearful Victorian heroines as Gwendolen Harleth, Isabel Archer, and Sue Bridehead are simply not appropriate for reincarnation by a contemporary writer.
So how do we react to a fairly recent story (1940) that focuses on old-fashioned female trembling before the male? The tale, briefly, is of a motherless girl’s obsession with what she considers a brutal masculine world. Although she lives with her father and brother, the exemplification of masculinity to her is a drunken Mr. Speed, whom she sees frequently passing by her house; she watches from the safety of her parlor, but she is nevertheless terrified and is convinced that someday she will have to deal with him personally. She begins, then, at the age of thirteen, to prepare herself for an inevitable confrontation with masculinity, and her preparation consists of hardening herself, of making herself cold and formidable. One day Mr. Speed drunkenly stumbles to her steps, and instead of taking pity on his helplessness—as her father or brother would have done—she calls the police and has him taken away, after which she never sees him again. She has conquered her fears of the male world through the assumption of a cruel authority, and, knowing now how to deal with frightening situations, she will obviously lead a life henceforth of both sternness and sterility.
There seems little, then, that is “modern” about this story. Female frigidity, as we have suggested, is no longer considered a noteworthy topic for fiction, and critics will reject as outdated a topic in a contemporary writer that they will admire in a Victorian. Not that they will reject it specifically for that reason; there are still too many critical absolutes that preclude judgments based on subject matter. Yet these judgments are made, if only unconsciously. As a further example, critics today would be likely to find naive—and therefore “popular “—a contemporary story exalting war or praising those who die for their country. Such topics are staples of literature of other eras, but at the moment, in America, this kind of expression is not encouraged. We do give heed, in other words, to the specifics of subject matter.
So what can we do with “A Spinster’s Tale” ? Let us say that we wish to bestow true establishment status on Taylor and that therefore we must find relevance in this story, as we must in the whole canon. If the heroine’s sexual problem is no longer
“Her feminine life style, as she sees it, can be preserved not by ignoring or avoiding the dreaded opposite life style, but by learning how to defend against it. The battle of the sexes—the rigid distinguishing of roles and the resultant impasses and irreconcilabilities—is shown in full force in this story.”
relevant, then there are other ways in which we can deal with this story. We can look for other, perhaps more subtle, nuances that do not seem quite so distant from our sensibilities. It is patronizing, perhaps, to do so, but the practice is nevertheless standard; it is a version of the old search for universals in human nature—or, to be more accurate, for the particular concepts that are accepted as universal at a particular time. Let us turn this story, then, into a hunting ground for the concepts that happen to please us; literary criticism has rarely done otherwise.
For an initial example of the story’s “modern-ness,” we can point to its case-history approach. Contemporary readers are sufficiently clinically oriented to respond to a story of how-she-got-that-way; the title indicates what she is—a spinster—and the narrative documents the process. The heroine first becomes aware of Mr. Speed, for instance, only after her mother dies, when she can no longer withdraw into feminine protection against the opposite sex. And we see that she had been taught already to think of the opposite sex with less than charity; one recollection of the mother is her words to her son who had come home drunk: “Son, I’d rather see you in your grave.” Moreover, the mother had died after a stillbirth; her death, then, is associated with her sexual function, or with what might be considered male imposition on the female.
The mother had been defeated by the male world, for in succumbing to an illness connected with or exacerbated by childbearing, she had clearly not been able to deal with masculine imposition. That is one matter that the daughter would learn. She knew intuitively, in fact, that “Mr. Speed was a permanent and formidable figure in my life which I would be called upon to deal with.” Her main tie to the masculine world had been her older brother, but in him, too, as he develops into manhood, she sees what she must defend against. She realizes that “in my brother and father I saw something of Mr. Speed. And I knew that it was more than a taste for whiskey they had in common.”
So, as she grows up, she prepares herself. She ventures into the servants’ and men’s bathrooms, finding even a fascination in filth and in “wet shaving brushes and leather straps and red rubber bands.” She assumes a more domineering role in the household than previously and manages to fire the cook completely on her own. And her fears now diminish: “I could no longer be frightened by my brother with a mention of runaway horses”; she has long associated runaway animals with Mr. Speed, with drunkenness, and with masculinity, but now she feels that she can deal with them. She has grown up, become “mature”—but her maturity, her womanhood, is formidable and cruel.
We have traced, then, the case history of a spinster. But we have also found a psychological matter more “modern” than sexual hysteria—an insight into the connection between fear and cruelty; this is a subject highly congenial to current discussion. The girl’s father, we realize, has no fear of Mr. Speed, and he never would have taken the step of calling the police, an action which apparently resulted in drastic consequences for Mr. Speed. She, however, acted from fear, and her deed was one of personal cruelty and what might be called—since Mr. Speed’s civil liberties were undoubtedly curtailed or suspended—“political” repression. She admits, “I was frightened by the thought of the cruelty which I found I was capable of,” and yet, “my hatred and fear of what he had stood for in my eyes has never left me.” Here, in the connection made between fear and cruelty and between fear and repression, is an insight which appeals to readers today; we always delight in the expression of one of our very own “universals.” The story, then, is “relevant” after all.
There are further insights that come close to the sexual problems of the girl and yet approach contemporary issues as well. If, as seems true today, the distinction between male and female roles has been diminished, this story, on the other hand, shows the roles in their full flowering—which is a cause, of course, of the heroine’s problems. In this story of how-she-got-that-way, her fears of the male result from the great gulf she has been taught to observe between masculine and feminine values and behavior, and from the widely differing roles that are assigned as a result of this gulf. Her father speaks of “Old Speed” to her brother in terms of a bad example, and to her uncles in terms of amusement; yet in her mind, “these designations were equally awful, both spoken in tones that were foreign to my father’s manner of addressing me.” Her father, in other words, speaks to people in terms of their roles; and his manner toward men, even though it varies from person to person, is far different from his manner toward women. At another time her father discusses the possible coming of war and recalls the troops that gathered before the Spanish-American conflict—“hundreds of men in the Union Depot.” The girl reacts as we might expect:
Thinking of all those men there, that close together, was something like meeting Mr. Speed in the front hall. I asked my father not to talk about war, which seemed to him a natural enough request for a young lady to make.
She feels threatened by the thought of such unmitigated masculinity, but her request to her father is considered natural for much more general reasons—because it is inappropriate for ladies to be exposed to anything serious or unpleasant. The great distinction in sexual roles is seen as axiomatic at this time and in this society, and the story tells the consequences.
Indeed she begins to conceive her role vis-a-vis men even more drastically. She feels that she must actively learn to handle situations involving masculinity. Her feminine life style, as she sees it, can be preserved not by ignoring or avoiding the dreaded opposite life style, but by learning how to defend against it. The battle of the sexes—the rigid distinguishing of roles and the resultant impasses and irreconcilabilities—is shown in full force in this story.
So do we have here—as a final “modernism”—the story of the rise of a no longer fearful but, rather, fear-inducing female? Does this story coincide with a point in a psychological model that indicates the shift from female fears of the male to male fears of the female? Has not the heroine come to resemble the formidable and threatening woman that is found in much current literature? Might not Taylor’s exemplum of how-she-got-that-way be considered an historical landmark on the road to how-he-got-that-way?
All these interpretations are perhaps too facile—and patronizing—in the attempt to fit a story to currently fashionable notions. For the story ends, after all, with the heroine obviously on the path to spinsterhood. The story has approached a seemingly modern subject, but the final sentence nevertheless seems rather dated: “It was only the other night that I dreamed I was a little girl on Church Street again and that there was a drunk horse in our yard.” This makes a neat symbolic summary of the story, but the symbol is quaint; the dream and the drunken horse are too patently Freudian, too out-of-date for a contemporary society that has rejected Freud’s dicta on women and that finds female fear of the male a little preposterous.
So have readers unconsciously evaluated this story on the basis of its subject matter? Is it true that Henry James, because he was born seventy-five years earlier than Peter Taylor, can say things that Taylor cannot? Must Taylor automatically find a different topic? The answer is, in part, yes. This story, despite skillful telling, may well be headed for oblivion, even though a certain recognition for it has been granted the author. There are many reasons for the burying of thousands of stories published in our periodicals of the last quarter-century, but—our critical absolutes notwithstanding—an important reason is the vagaries of our taste in subject matter and in treatment.
Source: Jan Pinkerton, “The Vagaries of Taste and Peter Taylor’s ’A Spinster’s Tale,’” in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 81-5.
Brown, Ashley. “The Early Fiction of Peter Taylor,” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXX, No. 4, Autumn, 1962, pp. 588-602.
Creekmore, Hubert. Review in The New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1948, pp. 6.
Pinkerton, Jan. “The Non-Regionalism of Peter Taylor,” in The Georgia Review, Vol. 24, No. 4, Winter, 1970, pp. 432-40.
____. “The Vagaries of Taste and Peter Taylor’s ’A Spinster’s Tale,’” in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1977, pp. 81-85.
Robison, James Curry. “The Early Period,” in Peter Taylor: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1988, pp. 19-31.
Sodowsky, Roland, and Gargi Roysircar Sodowsky. “Determined Failure, Self-styled Success: Two Views of Betsy in Peter Taylor’s ’Spinster’s Tale,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 49-54.
Warren, Robert Penn. Introduction to A Long Fourth, and Other Stories, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1948, pp. vii-x.
Brown, Ashley. “The Early Fiction of Peter Taylor,” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXX, No. 4, Autumn, 1962, pp. 588-602.
Brown perceives Mr. Speed as a symbol of both Elizabeth’s fear of men and the breakdown of civilized behavior, and considers family dissolution as a key theme in “A Spinster’s Tale.”
Creekmore, Hubert. Review in The New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1948, pp. 6.
An early review praising Taylor’s first collection, particularly his depiction of the deterioration of urban family life.
Pinkerton, Jan. “The Non-Regionalism of Peter Taylor,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 24, No. 4, Winter, 1970, pp. 432-40.
Pinkerton argues that Taylor’s story possesses universal themes that transcend its Southern setting.
Robison, James Curry. “The Early Period,” in Peter Taylor: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1988, pp. 19-31.
Robison focuses on the character of Betsy in “A Spinster’s Tale” and her rejection of sex, death, and the passage of time. He also examines the relationship between narrative technique and theme in the story.
Warren, Robert Penn. Introduction to A Long Fourth, and Other Stories, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1948, pp. vii-x.
Warren praises Taylor’s first collection, maintaining that “A Spinster’s Tale” is a superior example of Taylor’s attempt to depict Southern family life through a first-person narrator.
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