From the Fiction Workshop: Week 6

We’ve been talking quite a bit about how a story gets resonance from the proper pairing of characters and the pressure of plot that causes something surprising and yet inevitable to rise at the end. As we all know, it’s one thing to say this is what has to happen in order for a story to be memorable, and it’s another thing to offer advice on how a writer makes this happen. With that in mind, we turned yesterday to Richard Bausch’s story, “The Fireman’s Wife.” In this post, I’m going to try to use this story as a way of illustrating the techniques by which a short story writer can lead us to the inevitable in a way that surprises us. Only in retrospect do we take note of what Bausch had to do in order to make his ending resonant and memorable, to make us believe we were reading one story when really we were reading another.

The opening of  “The Fireman’s Wife” immediately poses the question that drives the story: Will Jane leave her marriage to Martin? I like having a question to hang on to as we move through a story, something to be resolved by the end, rather than feeling as if we’re moving through a series of scenes that seem to have been randomly selected. Everything from the opening of the story needs to be leaning toward what will eventually be the end. Rust Hills in his fine book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular says that the end of a good story is always present in the beginning, and I think he’s absolutely right. The key for the writer is to make that ending present from the git-go without the reader being overly aware of it, to let it rise covertly through the progression of the narrative.

The opening scene of “The Fireman’s Wife” dramatizes an evening, growing long in the tooth, on which a group of friends have gathered. The men in the group aren’t willing to let the night end. They may play cards. They may play the time-consuming game of Risk. Jane, though, has had enough of it all–enough of the evening, enough of the group, enough of her husband Martin: “She hasn’t been married even two years and she feels crowded; she’s depressed and tired every day. She never has enough time to herself. And yet when she’s alone, she feels weak and afraid.” Here’s a woman leaning toward the door if she can only work up the courage to make the move. Toward the end of the opening scene, her friend Milly tells her that even she used to wonder whether she’d made a mistake in marrying her husband Teddy. Then she says, “But, you know, all I had to do was wait. Just you know, wait for love to come around and surprise me again.” Although we don’t know it at the time, that line contains the story’s end. The question becomes one of how Bausch keeps the end in doubt while moving toward it all along.

As Jane’s dissatisfaction with her marriage deepens, another story takes shape, floating just below the primary narrative and for the most part out of sight. From time to time, we glimpse it, and we may not even be sure of what we’re seeing. At one point, Jane surprises herself by telling a co-worker that she thinks she’d like to have a baby. As one of my students smartly pointed out yesterday, Jane seems to be trying on various lives for herself by latching onto the lives of those around her (her friend Milly is pregnant). At another point, Jane views herself through the lens of her co-worker’s parents and the furnishings of their house: “Everything seems to stand for the kind of life she wants for herself: an attentive, loving husband, children; and a quiet house with a clock that chimes. She knows this is all very dreamy and childish, and yet she looks at Eveline’s parents, those people with their almost thirty years’ love, and her heart aches.” Passages such as these create that shadow narrative, the one that’s rising. Add to these moments, the one in which Jane, hearing the fire sirens, remembers what it was like when she and Martin were first married and she’d hear the sirens and worry about what might happen to him while out on a call. Jane has a longing for love and happiness, even a memory of tenderness, at the same time that she has a strong desire to leave the marriage.

Now notice how Bausch, just as this more tender story is working its way through the primary narrative of a marriage dissolving, pushes it back down a tad. The result is to thwart any certainty that we may think we have of where the story is headed. Jane thinks about all the Sundays she’s spent in her in-laws’ home where her father-in-law’s conversation is banal: “Jane realizes that she can’t stand another Sunday afternoon listening to him talk. It comes to her like a chilly premonition, and quite suddenly, with a kind of tidal shifting inside her, she feels the full weight of her unhappiness.” This move brings the primary narrative into sharp focus again and serves the purpose of inviting us to forget the more tender story of which we’ve had glimpses. It’s at this point that Jane actually begins packing her bags in preparation for leaving Martin.

But before she can leave, Martin’s fellow firefighters bring him home, his hands badly burned while fighting a fire. He sees the packed bags, and he knows what they mean even though Jane claims she just had too much to drink and was only going through what she has to wear. The next morning, while Martin sleeps, she goes outside and walks to the end of the driveway. There, she takes in the neighborhood, the flatness of the Illinois plains, the clear day. She remembers what it felt like when they first moved into the neighborhood, and the particulars make clear it was a calm, hopeful feeling. She goes into the garage and sees Martin’s model airplane engines. She remembers all  the things that she liked best about him when they first met and fell in love. That tender story is rising again, and, again, Bausch pushed it back down: “She puts the engine down, thinking how people change. She knows she’s going to leave him, but just for this moment, standing among these things she feels almost peaceful about it. She has, after all, no need to hurry. And as she steps out onto the lawn, she realizes that she can take her time to think clearly about when and where; she can even change her mind. But she doesn’t think she will.” The question posed in the opening of the story of whether Jane will leave her marriage seems to be answered, but wait, we have that shadow story, the more tender one, still in place. All it takes is the right arrangement of circumstances to make it rise above the primary story of a marriage ending.

An accident, a husband lying down to rest, a wife convinced that one day she’ll leave him. They have a brief conversation. “Jane?” he says, and that one question is loaded with meaning. The subtext is clear. Will you forgive my shortcomings? Will you stay? Will you let us have another chance? She says, “Try to rest some  more. You need to rest now.” She can’t give him the answer he wants, so she gives him no answer at all. She waits until he’s asleep and then she leaves the bedroom, closing the door. It’s here, in the final paragraph, that the shadow story overcomes, at least temporarily, the primary narrative: “At last he’s asleep. When she’s certain of this, she lifts herself from the bed and carefully, quietly withdraws. As she closes the door, something in the flow of her own mind appalls her, and she stops, stands in the dim hallway, frozen in a kind of wonder: she had been thinking in an abstract way, almost idly, as though it had nothing to do with her, about how people will go to such lengths leaving a room–wishing not to disturb, not to awaken, a loved one.”

The simple act of closing a door, given all that has come before it, becomes the means by which the inevitable surprise breaks through the story that has attempted to dominate it. Of course, this implied reawakening of affection may only be temporary, but it occupies the fiinal position of the story, and the narrative resonates with its arrival. It’s an arrival that’s inevitable, and I’ve tried to highlight the moves that Bausch executes to subtly make us aware on a subconscious level that this ending is coming. He give us just a few glimpses of it and then gives us enough reason to forget it. It’s a sleight of hand, a game of peekaboo, a promise and a subversion, a covert operation that becomes clear to us only after we’ve reached the end and lived within the reverberation of that surprise that’s been waiting for us all along, a surprise that gives us more truth, hits upon more layers of experience and emotional response that coexist in that final tableau.


  1. Bren McClain on February 9, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Wow. You are right. In those last three words, “a loved one,” the story both ends and begins. The story carries.

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