Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: The Snow Goose

I’m not normally a reader of short stories. I’ve encountered a few, largely through high school English classes. Academic articles are a form of short story, as are disparate chapters in an uncohesive memoir, but neither fills quite the same function as a fictional short story. A short story has a lot of challenges – Susan Hill pointed out a few of them in her recent memoir (or is there a better descriptive genre for this book?) Howard’s End is on the Landing. A short story must accomplish atmosphere, characterization, and plot, just as a novel, but it has so much less space in which to do it. Words can’t be wasted. A short story can be a snapshot of a life, or a description of a moment, or it can encompass the same grand sweeping plotlines of a novel – only it must do so in a matter of pages, rather than a matter of chapters. Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose is starkly beautiful, but may have reached higher than it could fly (pun intended). In trying to make a larger statement about the nature of things, too many ambiguities were explained. I don’t feel as if I would come to different conclusions about what symbols mean, if I were to re-read this every few years, and that left me feeling disappointed. Readers can’t decide for themselves when too many explanations are thrown in or answers made too obvious.
However, this has evidently had no detrimental effect on the popularity of this short story. Written in 1940 and originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, The Snow Goose became known as one of Gallico’s masterpieces. His story is based on a historical event from that same year: the frantic evacuation of British soldiers via any boat transportation possible from the beaches of Dunkirk. Like 9/11, this event was apparently so shocking to the wider culture that the only possible response for Gallico was artistic creation. And so he wrote this short story, which is beautifully written but again, seems to beat the reader over the head with his messages.
When Frith (also called Fritha in the story) finds a wounded snow goose from Canada in the marshes of Essex, the girl brings it, somewhat fearfully, to Philip Rhayader. Rhayader is a hunchback with a clawed hand, who lives alone and lonely in an abandoned lighthouse. There, he spends his days sailing, painting, and most importantly, tending the wild birds who come to him in their annual migrations. The snow goose is nursed back to health, and at its return each year, Fritha visits Rhayader. Their friendly companionship evolves as Fritha grows up, and when the snow goose chooses to stay and live at Rhayader’s house for good, Fritha feels compelled to stay with him herself. What would become a marriage or at least an unconventional relationship between a young woman and a deformed man is thwarted when Rhayader must take his boat to the beaches of Dunkirk to rescue British soldiers. In the hope that this review may persuade someone to read it, I won’t reveal the poignant ending.
Gallico’s writing style has its allure. He describes, sparingly but specifically, the many birds of the area, and the bleak landscape and sea. Themes of nature and flight serve to advance Gallico’s anti-war agenda. Ideas of home and relationship become entwined: Rhayader, as a beacon, comes to represent home and security, as well as the source of love. The ongoing question, of course, was what the snow goose represented. Each year, when it returned to Rhayader, so did Fritha. The two became inseparable in my mind. Was the snow goose Fritha? Was it childhood, or family, or the circular patterns of nature and life? It was enjoyable to try and puzzle this out, but the fun was lost when Gallico forthrightly explained his metaphor in one of the final paragraphs. No ambiguity here: “Frith saw no longer the snow goose but the soul of Rhayader…” It was an interesting twist that flipped around my previous assumptions. The goose, in representing this aspect of Rhayader, transforms Fritha into part of Rhayader himself. We now know that she is drawn to the hunchbacked man because she is, ultimately, a part of him (meaning that perhaps, he is a part of her as well?) This reveal was fascinating in that it forced me to alter my previous conclusions, but at the same time, I wish this overarching metaphor had been left for the reader to wonder at.
Things to consider:
Might I have liked this better if the snow goose metaphor had not been explained? Or would I have felt that the story was too impenetrable and didn't come to any real conclusions? I wonder if I would have been truly satisfied either way. Do you read short stories, and if you do, do you like symbols to be explained?
Things I'm reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Good Wives, Louisa May Alcott
True Confessions: Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School, Susan Gubar, ed.
Hugo Riemann and the Birth of Modern Musical Thought, Alexander Rehding

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