My first story of the year for this challenge turned out to be “The Stranger” by Katherine Mansfield. It was so similar in mood, tone, outcome to “The Dead” by James Joyce that it seems almost certain she wrote it as an homage. Mr Hammond is anxiously waiting for his wife, Janey, to return after a year’s absence. She has been abroad visiting their married daughter. He wonders why the ship has been off the coast for so long without moving. Why is it taking so long? As he awaits his reunion with his wife, we are treated to his thoughts about her and his anticipation of her return. He’s brought along letters from the children at home and he’s also booked an extra night at the hotel for a treat so that they don’t need to dash home too quickly.
There are some worries: the doctor’s “launch” has left the pier at two-fifteen and it is now four twenty-eight. Finally Janey arrives and is surrounded by people saying farewell:
“Goodbye, dear Mrs. Hammond, what this boat would have been without you”. People hope that she will write to them; that she will visit them. She’s almost like a celebrity amongst the people disembarking.
Like Gabriel Conroy in James Joyce’s story, “The Dead,” Mr. Hammond is eager to get Janey into the hotel room. “For God’s sake let’s get off to the hotel so that we can be by ourselves!” he snaps at her.
Once at the hotel, he’s eager for romance and she seems to be postponing it. She wants tea; she wants to talk; she wants to look at the children’s letters. He wants to “blot out everything” and he suffers tortures. But she has others things going on in her head.
I won’t write a spoiler but the essence is that she’s had an experience she cannot shake loose and he is annoyed that his physical desire is not topmost in her mind. She wants to talk, but dares not spoil his evening. She does talk: she has done nothing wrong, but yet he is enormously upset that her head is in the place of mortality and philosophy while his is between his legs. He feels, at the end of the story, that his entire life is ruined and that he will never be truly alone with her again.
Mansfield presents her characters and their thoughts and what they say with an almost dispassionate clinical sense of reporting: and the upshot is that the Hammonds, husband and wife, are in that age-old conflict about just when, why, and how a woman feels too bereft, or unwell, to capitulate to sex.
It’s a very moving story and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her stories this year.