Amy Hempel’s work holds a special place in my personal canon of short story authors. I first discovered her stories when beginning to write my own. This was back in 2009 and I was grabbing up every recommendation of quality short stories that I could. I forget how I first heard of Amy Hempel, but I remember receiving my copy of her collected stories and devouring them.
She remains firmly in my top five short fiction writers (might post on this list at some point); so many of her stories are essential reading for any serious writer of short fiction. All of which means I was pleased to find that Short Story Magic Tricks seems to be running a series of posts discussing Amy Hempel’s short fiction. The mini-essays on the site are always interesting and provide the perfect launch point to dive into unfamiliar work, or, in the case of Hempel, revisit stories I love.
When It’s Human Instead of When It’s Dog is one my absolute favourite stories by Amy Hempel. Its short series of compressed scenes detail a man’s grief following the death of his wife, all told from the point of view of the housekeeper who, returning to work after two weeks, is faced with the job of removing the stain that marks the place upon the carpet where the woman died. It is a beautifully and quietly observed depiction of grief, the human desire to provide consolation, and the chasm, often unbridgeable that can separate the two. Hempel, here as in her other work, is the master of the killer last line.
I remember that, when I first discovered her, she was described to me as an author who would break you heart. She does. In much of her work. She certainly does here. The last sentence of this story, its simplicity, its loaded statement of fact (to identify one of the key signals that asserts its closural force), breaks my heart each time I read it. Indeed, the whole story is a delicately constructed experience, a powerful example of how a great short story can carry the reader through a defined and powerfully affecting cognitive process, one designed to have the unified effect Poe first described way back at the dawn of the modern short story. This story is an emotional hand grenade. Hempel pulls the pin part way through the narrative without us even realising, as the housekeeper calls round her network of fellow housekeepers trying desperately to find a way to remove the stain from the carpet. And all the while the grenade waits, until the quiet, devastating explosion of the story’s final sentence.
Interestingly (and coincidentally) the question Short Story Magic Tricks raises, about the why Hempel chooses to tell the tale from the point of view of of the housekeeper and not the grieving husband, relates to some criticial reading I was doing yesterday. Walter Sullivan, in ‘Revelation in the Short Story: A Note on Methdology’, discusses (amongst other things) the question of the ‘relative position of the character who attains moral knowledge to the main line of the plot’ (1951, 109). Each short story, Sullivan argues, can be placed upon a spectrum between intra-concatinate and extra-concatinate. Intra-concatinate revelation, where a character is directly involved with the sequence of events and their subsequent revelation, can be see, Sullivan states, in short stories like Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, where ‘the character’s participation forces his own change of view; extra-concatinate revelation, in contrast, describes those narratives where ‘revelation is achieved in a character at the fringe of the action, one who, strictly speaking, does not have a direct interest in the chain of events’ (109), narratives such as Faulkner’s That Evening Sun.
Short Story Magic Tricks is correct in the assertion that Hempel’s narrative ‘twists our sympathies’ through its choice of narrative view. The reader is forced to constantly re-evaluate their sympathies with both the housekeeper and the widower, because of the power dynamics at play between the characters, as employee and employer, and as bereaved husband and the observer of his grief. But part of the story’s tension, it appears to me now, is a result of the way Hempel, through her use of the housekeeper’s point of view, situates the story as both intra-concatinate and extra-concatinate. The housekeeper is at once deeply involved in the central narrative, alone in the house with the brereaved husband and wrangling with both his grief and the central action of attempting top clean the stained carpet, and also on the fringe of the action, observing his grief and not directly affected by the loss of the wife. Yes, the housekeeper has been forced to accept a change to routine, and she clearly displays feelings of grief herself in her actions, but, at the end of her duties, she leaves and goes home, to whomever awaits her there. She is both a part of the bereaved household and apart from it and it is this complexity that powers this story.
After reading Sullivan’s thoughts on revelation in the short form I was wondering if the spectrum of intra-concatinate/extra-concatinate revelation would be worth visiting in my thesis. I am still unsure whether or not to explore the types of revelation in my sample stories, but seeing it form such an essential part of such a great story is definitely pushing me that way. Perhaps a look at my contemporary sample to start with?
In the meantime, I’ll be dipping back into Hempel’s collected stories and reading along with Short Story Magic Tricks’ exploration of her work. Perfect weekend reading. If you haven’t read any of Amy Hempel’s work, I urge you to take a look. When It’s Human Instead of When It’s Dog would be a great place to start.
Sullivan, W. (1951) ‘Revelation in the Short Story: A Note on Methodology’, Vanderbilt Studies in the Humanities, 1(1), pp. 106–112.