Now here’s a sentence I don’t get to write very often: Today I read a really great short story.
Generally I am not a fan of short stories. I tend to find them difficult, evasive and obscure. If I do find a short story that engages me, then I’m usually frustrated because it ends just as i’m getting interested. A collection of linked short stories, such as Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, can be almost as good as a novel. But mostly when I read a good short story, especially if it’s by a new author, my main reaction is, “This is good — she should write a novel!”
Margaret Atwood has a new collection of short stories out — Moral Disorder. Not surprisingly for Canada’s best-known and most-critically-acclaimed novelist, it’s getting good reviews, but I felt no urge to pick it up. I have enjoyed some of Atwood’s novels, particularly The Handmaid’s Tale, but I find her short stories (of which I had to read plenty in my grad-school days) more off-putting even than most short stories. Besides being obscure and too short to really engage me, Atwood’s stories are also, usually, pretty much downers.
But then I read a review of Moral Disorder that mentioned a story called “My Last Duchess,” about a teenager reading Browning’s famous poem of that name. I knew, immediately, that I had to read this story.
I have quite the history with My Last Duchess. When I was in high school, it was in the English anthology in Grade Nine … and Grade Ten … and Grade Eleven. The first time we did it in class, I found the poem haunting and a little chilling, especially after the teacher walked us through it and I saw what was going on there. The next two exposures lacked that thrill of discovery and by Grade Eleven the menacing Duke and his smily Duchess had become a bit like embarrassing old acquaintances with whom you avoid eye contact in the supermarket aisle because there’s just nothing more to say. The poem had been literally analyzed to death for me. Yet some faint memory of its former power to creep me out lingered about the edges of my much-graffiti’d English book.
I think I taught the poem a few times in the early years of my teaching career, but I haven’t seen it in anthologies in recent years; its popularity must be waning. Its popularity came, I think, from the fact that it’s an eminently teachable poem — difficult enough that an average student won’t immediately grasp it upon reading it, but clear enough that Teacher can come along and magically unfold it into something that makes sense.
Anyway, I knew I had to read Atwood’s story about it, so today I went to Chapters and took Moral Disorder off the shelf and read the story “My Last Duchess.” And it truly is a great short story, about a very smart and self-conscious high school girl reading the poem and trying to explain it to her somewhat less smart boyfriend, then reflecting on the duchess in the poem and all the sad, passive, victimized women who wander like wraiths through the hallowed halls of Great English Literature. I’m glad the high school English curriculum has admitted a bit more diversity since days when I, and Atwood’s character, were in school — I hope girls today are getting more varied literary pictures of how to be women. But this young woman, using literature as a tool to discover her place in the world, is a character with whom I can readily identify — and Atwood’s prose is spare, lovely, and absolutely precise.
I see, and have always see, the poor dead Duchess differently from how Atwood’s character sees her — to me she was a woman who simply loved life and loved people, and had her spirit crushed by a husband who was both misogynistic and misanthropic. Like Atwood’s narrator, like the narrator’s teacher Miss Bessie, she is a woman who can be read many ways, seen in many different lights — depending on what I, as a reader, bring to the act of reading.
The story haunts me just a little, tonight. The poem, nearly thirty years after first reading, still does too.