Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesdays - The Merry Widow by Margaret Drabble

Please do visit Breadcrumb Reads for more short stories this Wednesday.

The Merry Widow, eleventh story.
18 pages long.
First published in Woman's Journal, September 1989.
A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman
Complete Short Stories published 2011.

The words 'merry' and 'widow' seem mismatched and shocking to us. Can a widow be happy? Isn't she bereft, lonesome, lost without her life's partner? It would seem not necessarily. There are all sorts of marriages that we, as outsiders to the relationships, know nothing about. Once in a while we'll be with a couple and see the little jabs and criticisms between them, or given by one to the other, but mostly people hide the bad and offer only the good sides of their lives, their marriages.

Before Philip died, he and Elsa had booked a two-week vacation cottage in Dorset. The expectation is that she will now cancel, but the truth is that she cannot wait to go on this solo adventure.
If she were honest with herself, which she tried to be, she had not been looking forward to the holiday while Philip was alive: it would have been yet another dutifully endured, frustrating, saddening attempt at reviving past pleasures, overshadowed by Philip's increasingly ill-health and ill-temper. But without Philip, the prospect brightened.
... the emotion she expected to experience in Dorset was not grief, but joy. She needed to be alone, to conceal from prying eyes her relief, her delight in her new freedom and yes, her joy.
Well, that certainly tells us what Elsa is feeling, doesn't it? Most people thought that Philip's sickness was the reason he was grouchy, but Elsa knows that it only 'accentuated' his natural state of mean-spiritedness. As the story goes on, we begin to see the small, and not-so-small, indignities and verbal abuses Elsa has endured all these years. He would make fun of her choices in television shows and books and recreational pursuits. Oh, how it must have worn her down over the years, and how light she now feels without this oppressive negativity. This feeling even extends to Elsa's children and grandchildren.
She had found herself bored by them, irritated with them. After years and years of cravenly soliciting their favours, of begging them to telephone more often, of blackmailing them into coming for Christmas (or, lately, into inviting herself and Philip for Christmas), she now, suddenly, had found herself bored, had admitted to herself to be bored.
Whew, that isn't something you read all the time, is it? Parents aren't supposed to think like this, are they? But when you read something like Rosamunde Pilcher's The Shell Seekers, and see those selfish, money-grubbing children you may understand the relief Elsa feels in admitting that hers aren't perfect beings.

So, we follow our heroine to her cottage, and see her wonderment at all the so-called 'little' things that she may now do, without criticism or opposition. There is a bit of a thorn amongst the roses in the shape of a gardener intruding on her peaceful solitude. She fears she is going mad with her response to his just being there, but she comes to understand her feelings in a metaphorical sense.

I can't believe how great this story was. The descriptions of Elsa's state of mind, and the cottage and its environs were superb. Margaret Drabble's genius lies in making the reader understand exactly how Elsa feels and why.


  1. While my own marriage was certainly nothing at all like Elsa's, I can still relate quite well to some of what you write here, Nan. This Saturday, it will be two years that I am a widow, and I am both merry and happy nowadays, although not without the odd sad day and tearful hour in between.

  2. I always so appreciate your thoughtful notes, Librarian. Thank you.

  3. Oh my, as I read this, I could relate to some of it "quite well" also.
    Unspoken words that my heart and I would talk about :)
    I am not a widow but alone for 30 years because of divorce.
    In many ways is this also like a widow. Many memores - good and bad.

  4. Thank you, Ernestine for your words. I so appreciate hearing from you.

  5. I've never read anything by Margaret Drabble but your very vivid description of this story makes me think I should. After 38 years of marriage I find it a difficult thing to think of widowhood but it's something I should not ignore. Of course, it may turn out to be me that goes first... and then I worry about my husband on his own. Middle age seems full of these concerns somehow. What a good thing we have good books to distract us to stop us from worrying *all* the time!

  6. So beautifully said, Cath. Each word is true.
    This book of short stories is a wonderful place to start if you've not read MD.

  7. I've just realized that I'm missing a lot by not reading short stories. And I think I know why. I was assigned Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" in school and was so horrified by it that I simply stopped reading short stories. Silly when I think of it now; it's like not reading books because I didn't like one book, but there you are.

    As for being alone, I think we all make sacrifices for a pleasant life with our spouses. Then when we find ourselves alone, we take a lot of pleasure in being free to do whatever we like. I'm not alone but I did live alone for many years before I married Dave and there are little things I miss.

  8. Barbara, I think it may be assigned because it is such a surprising and startling story for kids. Gives them something to think about in terms of peer pressure/mob mentality. But in my adult life I've found the most wonderful short stories, which are really that- just shorter versions of books. They don't all have that surprise factor.
    If you click on the short stories tab under the blog header photo, you'll find several I think - in fact I am quite sure - you would really like.
    What you wrote about marriage is so very thoughtful and true.

    Val, she's a great writer.

  9. Oh, this does sound like a wonderful story, Nan! I'd love to follow Elsa around her cottage in Dorset. I remember seeing this book when it first arrived in the store, entranced by the lovely cover art. I'll have to see if we still have a copy! I've never read MD.

  10. Les, you may become a fan of short stories, yet! They aren't all by de Maupassant or Fitzgerald or Hemingway :<) I think many of us were turned off to short stories by the 'classics.' There are such wonderful ones out there.


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