Tessa Hadley: “Honor”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Tessa Hadley’s “Honor” was first published in The New Yorker‘s February 7, 2011, issue.

Click for a larger image.

I’m becoming a bigger and bigger fan of Tessa Hadley’s short fiction.  She’s frequently in The New Yorker (this is her fourth story I’ve written about since I started my New Yorker fiction project in January 2009.  All of them offer a great sense of the people involved, generally just a couple of characters developed through a few episodes, though the stories often take us into a few different times.

This particular story is a great follow-up to last week’s piece by Alice Munro, which looked at a pair of girls growing up fifty years ago.  Here, in “Honor,” our narrator is Stella, a woman in her mid-fifties and is looking back to the early 1960s when she and her mother lived together alone:

My father was supposedly dead, and I found out only years later that he’d left, walked out when I was eighteen months old.  I should have guessed this — should have seen the signs, or the absence of them.  Why hadn’t we kept any of his things to treasure?  Why whenever he came up in conversation, which was hardly ever, did my mother’s face tighten, not in grief or regret but in disapproval — the same expression she had when she tasted some food or drink she didn’t like (she was fussy, we were both fussy, fussy together)?  Why did none of our relatives or friends ever mention his name?  (Which was Bert, unpoeticaly.)  What had he died of, exactly?  (“Lungs, my mother said shortly.  She had hated his smoking.)

It goes without saying that this was a rough time for a woman to be a single parent.  I imagine it must have been even more disgraceful if she was abandoned and not a widow.  However, Stella’s mother puts up a very strong front in the face of the times:

This was in the nineteen-fifties and the early sixties (I was born in 1956), so many things that seem quaint now were current and powerful then: shame, and secrecy, and the fear that other people would worm themselves into your weaknesses, and that their knowledge of how you had lapsed or failed would eat you away from the inside.

Hadley takes us back to this time and introduces us to this narrator when she was an ignorant child and then she introduces us to Auntie Andy (Andrea) and Andy’s son Charlie, who is roughly the same age as Stella.  Stella never really knew Charlie (Andy was the only relative from the father’s side to keep in touch, but it was still only every once in a while), but she also never really liked Charlie.  Then, out of the blue, there is a phone call.  Auntie Andy has asked to come stay with them for a while.  Stella’s mother says not to ask about Charlie or Charlie’s father.  When Andy arrives, she gives an eerie description of Auntie Andy who was once very shy:

Her face was rather white.  She reminded me of a girl at school, who had been slapped for extreme insolence (usually only the boys were hit): when this girl walked back to her desk, she was in a sort of smiling daze, vivid with shock. 

Though no one is telling us or Stella, we can guess that something terrible has happened to Charlie.  Stella herself has only been able to piece together the story through the years as a bit of detail pops out here and there.  However, her mother finally does tell her that Charlie is dead.  Charlie’s father is on trial:

People had mixed feelings about men’s violence against their families in those days: it was disgusting, but it was also, confusedly, part of the suffering essence of maleness, like the smell of tobacco and the beard growth.  I think that sexuality itself was sometimes understood, by the women in my family, as a kind of violence that must be submitted to, buried deep in the privacy of domestic life.

All of this is very well told.  We go into the narrator’s young consciousness as she figures out what has happened, deals with the other kids at school, and begins to realize that Charlie was a real person who had real experiences.  It is a very powerful, if conventional, line in the story.

However, the story’s real power lies in how it looks at the aftermath for the women.  Andy has that dazed smile.  She’s grieving, certainly, but as the story progresses, while we never — or I never, at least — questioned her love for her son, somehow this previously shy woman has a respectible reserve about her.  And if we step back to the beginning of the story, when Stella is telling us about her own mother and absent father, we can’t help but see some similarities.  We never know what Stella’s father did.  Was he abusive?  It doesn’t say.  Nevertheless, Stella’s mother has a portion of independence now, and we can sense that she is thriving in it.  All of this is subverted:

And then, within a couple of years, they both found themselves a man, as if that had been the whole point of the enterprise.

Certainly a story to pay well on multiple readings, it is a nuanced look at the violence these women experienced and how it affected them.  At the same time we have this narrator trying to tell her own story in the wake of tragedy and secrecy.

7 thoughts on “Tessa Hadley: “Honor””

  1. Betsy says:

    I hope this has been a sunny vacation, Trevor. We’re all shoveling!

    About Tessa Hadley’s “Honor”. About half way through the story, Stella, who is now about fifty-five, remarks about a time in her childhood: “My instinct in those days was to smother any unpleasant truth, push it back into its hole.”

    The story is about truth and how you tell the truth, or if sometimes when you tell the truth, it’s not the whole truth. The second sentence of the story begins: “My father was supposedly dead…”. “Supposedly” here, on such a serious topic, is an indicator that we are dealing with a tipped narrator, someone who does not really see herself or her history clearly, let alone anyone else’s.

    The central event in the story, however, is the death of a child at the hands of a brutal father. Only slowly, however, do you realize that the story is also about the way in which his mother, Andy, left the boy to be beaten. Although Andy admits, rather offhandedly, that she shouldn’t have left the boy behind when she fled the enraged husband, it also seems that she doesn’t actually admit it to herself. Instead, she lets herself enjoy the attention that a victim might enjoy, should they play the role to the hilt. The story is troubling on many counts, another being that Stella herself seems not completely alive to herself, a fact she remarks on in various ways, but a fact she doesn’t completely comprehend.

    In an interview, Hadley comments that she is interested in memoir as source material for stories. The story clearly comments, interestingly, on the way we retail the history of our lives, as Stella, now in her fifties, appears to be doing. There seem to be multiple ways in which reality is distorted in Stella’s retelling of this event from her childhood, and these distortions seem to be the actual heart of the story.

    What also strikes me about this story, however, is the writer’s courage in presenting a narrative with so many flawed and unnattractive characters. One is left with enjoying the author’s pursuit of story-telling – but not necessarily enjoying any of the characters.

    An odd distortion from the universe upon this story is that it has a typo: on the third page, the story reads: “I supposed that as I soon as I was sent to bed…”.

  2. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the well-wishing, Betsy. Indeed, I’m in 80 degree weather and I’m not looking forward to returning to winter.

    Also, thanks, as always, for your comment. I enjoy reading your perspective and the multiple threads you pull on in the story.

    I didn’t quite read this one the same way as you. For example, while we know that when Andy ran from the house to escape her husband, I genuinely believe she didn’t think anything bad would happen to him. I think she experiences guilt for this, and the guilt and the event itself have had a powerful formation effect on her character. She is no longer shy and, for someone so long abused and powerless, she now has a bit of power over those around her. I like reading this and comparing and contrasting with Stella’s mother’s situation.

    As for the typo, I’m not sure I see it. It seems correct as written to me. It is her young self doing the supposing here: “I supposed that as soon as I was sent to bed the two women would talk, and I would hear the dramatic music of their scandalizing revelations and commiserations penetrating the dividing wall. . . . However, when Mum told me to get my pajamas on Auntie Andy announced that she would go to bed now, too.”

  3. Betsy says:

    Trevor, glad to hear there’s a place that is warm!

    About that typo – it actually exists in the printed magazine on page 71 just as I typed it – there’s an extra “I”.

    I agreed with your thought about it being a brilliant pairing with the Alice Munro story as well as an interesting pairing with all the current Betty Friedan commentary.

    Your point that Andy believed that nothing would happen to Charlie is well taken, I agree, in that she had left him behind in just such a situation before, and nothing had happened.

    But there is the fact that she says of Charlie, “He had a mind of his own.” Charlie had been getting into fights, and now he was also doing poorly in school. Andy wasn’t sure she could help him with his school work, “as the teacher recommended”. Charlie’s death, as horrible as it is, is both the result of her leaving him behind, which she admits is true, but it is also undeniably the solution to her insurmountable problems.

    Children sometimes are unprotected by their abused mothers.

    Violence in the family causes truth to be pushed “back into its hole”, as Stella says. What might have been a a natural maternal protectiveness in Andy had been overwhelmed by her own fears. Whether she was wrong or right when she ran out of the house is almost beside the point, because at her moment of truth she was incapable.

    So I argue that there is still room in the story for there to be ambiguity about the degree of culpability Andrea bears, and after the fact, is aware of: i.e. “the magnitude of what she had undergone, and what she had lost, which could never be restored.” One of the many things she has lost is her motherhood.

    I am eager to read more of Hadley’s stories.

  4. Trevor says:

    Ah, ideed there is the extra “I” right in plain sight! Your editor’s eye is more acute than mine, Betsy!

  5. Aaron says:

    “I” don’t buy this story, though I like the reading you have on it, which relates things to the titular concept of “Honor.” Yes, one gets the heavy-handed sense at the opening of the story (and again during the summary of the court scenes) that times could be tough for women, especially single women, but we’re totally missing a sense of consequences and deeper understanding, mainly because the story is about Stella, and is then hijacked into something else.

    With some editing, I suspect I’d have loved this — the writing’s certainly strong. But the narrative voice keeps shifting, the parentheses keep pulling the story off track, and we learn perhaps too much about people who don’t seem integral to the tale (like Nana). I go into specifics back at my site (http://tinyurl.com/4w6z3h8); I just don’t think this is strong enough.

  6. Ken says:

    I liked this story and looked at it sort of as a Freudian tale of how a repressive society can then breed violence (in men) and more repression (the “dignity” of Andy’s suffering which makes her superior to her old passive self). The comments above, though, about single mom’s in the early 1960′s and how in an odd way both women have a certain freedom in singleness which they then leave behind when remarrying are also very interesting perspectives. I don’t think the story ever leaves the narrator’s perspective per the last comment.

  7. Aaron says:

    Ken, let me clarify; the story doesn’t leave the narrator’s perspective — but her VOICE changes, and her focus WANDERS. There’s something young about a line like “I really wished, while Auntie Andy was staying with us, and then later, during the trial, when we saw a lot of her again, that I didn’t know any of this” and something too old and descriptive about “I was accorded a kind of sepulchral respect at school” and “if I cheated them out of their syrupy, pleasurable sorrowing.”

    It leaves me not buying the essence of the story, and her own discoveries don’t ever feel clear — not as clear as the comments here, at least. I mean, the story doesn’t really establish how society breeds violence in men, it just sort of says that some guys are like that, and some women are meek, etc., etc.

Leave a Reply