“The Hanging of the Schoolmarm”
by Robert Coover
from the November 28, 2016 issue of The New Yorker

november-28-2016As far as I’m concerned, The New Yorker can keep on publishing these tiny stories from Robert Coover. “The Invasion of the Martians,” published just a couple of months ago, is one of my favorite New Yorker stories of the year, and his strange takes on old fairy tales — “The Crabapple Tree” and “The Frog Prince,” for example — won me over when I initially a Coover skeptic.

And now we get one entitled “The Hanging of the Schoolmarm.” The title alone has me interested, and then we get to this paragraph:

The men of the town find the schoolmarm difficult but are awed by her refined and lofty character, and generally do what she tells them to do. The sheriff likes to say that she’s as pure as the spotless lily of the lake, though they have no lake, and there are no lilies in it. No damn lilies. The men cuss a lot — in fact, all the time — but never around the schoolmarm. Cussing doesn’t go together with the schoolmarm. It’s like salting your coffee, to put it politely.

This follows the opening two paragraphs, in which the schoolmarm shoots someone for cussing: “Sorry, but I simply cannot allow . . .” I think we might have another satire on our hands! The story also ventures into some philosophy, and I cannot quite wrap my head around all it’s trying to do. I just know that I enjoyed going through it, because Coover constantly keeps me thinking while also injecting bits of humor:

When the sheriff leads the schoolmarm up onto the gallows, he says, “I know you’re sad about losing your life, ma’am, but you gotta understand — out here, life don’t mean nothing. What only matters is rocks. Rocks and the un-effable, pardon the French.”

“Your French loses something in the translation,” the schoolmarm says, “but I suppose when you speak of the ineffable you are speaking of me.”

“Yes’m,” the sheriff says, “Sure am.”

The story takes only a few minutes to read, so I am excited to see what the rest of you have to say about it. I’ll contribute more to the comments below, so feel free to let us know how you felt about the story, Coover in general, etc.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
By |2017-05-25T18:02:41+00:00November 21st, 2016|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Robert Coover|Tags: |25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. David November 21, 2016 at 5:08 pm

    I did not enjoy Coover’s “The Invasion of the Martians” nor did I like this story. His humour just doesn’t make me laugh, which is not to say that there is anything wrong if others do laugh. It’s just I didn’t. The “…and there are no lilies in it” and the un-effable / ineffable jokes both sound to my ear like they have the seeds of ideas that could be funny but didn’t work.
    .
    As for the story, he says in the interview that he had the idea of the teacher winning the saloon as the seed for the story a long time ago. But to me it hardly seems like much at all. I don’t see why he thought he might have something with that as the beginning of a story.
    .
    The style of writing also seemed to me to not work. The story reads as if it were written as a plot summary for a much longer work and not just because of its length. Even when he writes dialogue it reads more like examples included in expository writing than as real dialogue. Throughout it felt like he was tying to keep the reader too much at arm’s length from the action.

  2. Trevor Berrett November 21, 2016 at 6:02 pm

    I think the teacher winning the saloon (and shooting a man for swearing in the process) has some nice whiffs of American religious hypocrisy in it. It’s a strange story, for sure, and I’m still not sure what the rocks have to do with the hypocrisy, etc. from the beginning . . .

    Still, his matter-of-fact strangeness hits me the right way. It feels like the kind of story told by an old-timer (it is, I guess, since Coover is 84) at a community event, but with the gloss slightly burnished to reveal the darker underbelly.

  3. David November 21, 2016 at 8:45 pm

    I didn’t see an aspect of religious hypocrisy to her winning the saloon, but I’m willing to be persuaded. As for the rocks, the discussion of them seemed to me to be introduced to use them as symbols of permanence and enduring truths only in the final sentence to be turned into a mundane object that serves to weigh her down to make sure her neck snaps when she is hanged. I thought the point in the end was that it was supposed to be a joke revealed in this transition. But then again, I didn’t find it all that funny or clever so I could be wrong. I’m open to being persuaded about that too :-)

  4. bcw56 November 22, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    I love this site, the exchange of ideas in the comment threads, and especially the outstanding editorial voice of the writers.

    Did not care for this story or the recent “Invasion,” though. Both feel like they are satirizing the America of George W. Bush. Particularly as history seems to be moving very fast suddenly, they have felt way out of touch and out of step with the times this fall.

  5. Melinda November 22, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    To me this story tells a very strange, condensed history of “civilization” starting with the raw frontier, the town saloon and its takeover by the prim schoolmarm. “’Sorry, but I simply cannot allow…’” After she takes over the rough talking saloon, she turns the bar into an altar, becomes the preacher and forces attendance at her “temperance lectures.” Then comes formal education with math, spelling, reading and classroom discipline. This leads to the formation of an official legal system so that the schoolmarm can be hanged for her dominance over the uncouth; they neither want to adhere to her order nor suffer her wrath. From this comes the deep thinkers, those who consider mankind, justice and the concept of time.
    Finally, the schoolmarm exposes the existence of irony, that there is no justice and time. The sheriff’s version of justice, as opposed to the schoolmarm’s, is dependent upon the “color” of the law that was broken and at what time it occurred, in other words, a mere pretense of law. When the schoolmarm strikes back with a deeper, eternal law, or timeless truths and concepts, the sheriff and all are bored and rebellious. She’s reached beyond their grasp; they are lazy, disinterested. This results in the sheriff’s decision to move forward with his version of justice and the schoolmarm’s hanging.
    There’s an unresolved condition that results from it all. The laws and fears of the common masses (sheriff) vs. those deeper concepts of eternal laws or truths, the ineffable, of the high-minded thinkers (schoolmarm). “They express something profound about this place, this life, as I cannot. Language, even when grammatically correct, is simply inadequate. The situation is, in that sense, unspeakable.’”
    Silent rocks compress the elements of history, results of time, into an eye blink. Science studies this, takes it apart and attempts to explain existence, past and future. Regardless, in the end, only humans have experienced that journey through time: life, death, oblivion. It can’t be avoided: eventually, everyone will come to an end and return to the rocks.
    I liked this story, its humor with both ideas and language; I admired its attempt at insight. In a few words, it accomplishes much. As well, I’ve enjoyed Coover’s other stories published in the NYer. I didn’t realize how much I appreciated “Invasion of the Martians” until I tried to explain, over dinner, to a group of non-bookish friends what I’d read earlier that day. The look on their faces made it all worthwhile.

  6. Eric November 24, 2016 at 12:24 am

    I generally like Coover a lot, but this one came across as rather confused, or maybe just beyond me; I think I liked Melinda’s explanation better than the story itself. She totally leaves out the events of the first two paragraphs, which is helpful; the thing is a lot easier to make sense of if you pretend the story didn’t start off with a joke about the protagonist shooting someone. It’s hard enough to grasp the existential significance of rocks without trying to figure out how (if?) it relates back to homicide.

  7. Eric November 24, 2016 at 12:25 am

    Wish I could have been a fly on the wall at Melinda’s dinner, that sounds like a memorable conversation.

  8. Kirk Taylor November 24, 2016 at 9:35 am

    Robert Coover’s “The Hanging of the Schoolmarm” is ineffable, so I will stop here.

  9. Dennis Lang November 28, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    Yes, wonderful site and I enjoy the differing perspectives of the commenters.
    I wonder though as thoughtful analysis is provided we tend to critique for what a work isn’t, instead of embracing it for what it is.
    I recall an interview with Robbe-Grillet decades ago on the release of the film “Last Year at Marrienbad” Viewers were in desperate search of its meaning. The screen writer’s reply, to paraphrase: “It means nothing beyond itself and is a referent only for itself.” I take this to mean that it is an object complete in itself–like a sculpture perhaps. To seek some meaning beyond it is not only pointless but will fail to enrich.
    Anyway, this is to say that I found the Coover story an enticing little adventure–in itself.

  10. William November 30, 2016 at 10:07 am

    Reflecting the provocative nature of this piece, there are lots of good observations – including Dennis Lang’s suggestion to take it for what it is and not fault it for what it doesn’t do. But playing with the ideas stimulated by the story is too much fun to resist.

    Melinda, thanks for your astute explication. I re-read the story with that wider viewpoint in mind, and I came up with a conceptually similar interpretation but with a different orientation.

    What I see happening here is the eternal conflict between men and women – men being action-oriented and women trying to order society. This ordering of society is something that Freud talks about insightfully in “Society and Its Discontents”. I realize that this is a gender stereotype, but I think it holds, somewhat. We are increasingly seeing a cultural divide between men and women in American society, which was sharply illustrated in our recent Presidential election and in our political climate generally. Just yesterday Elizabeth Warren was trolled as “shrill”, “screechy” and “bitchy” for her latest speech. I don’t think Coover was commenting specifically on the election, but I think his story and the election contest both illustrate this divide.

    Notice that the sheriff decides to hang the Schoolmarm not for shooting the swearing cowboy, and not for her philosophical speeches, which come later, but for “her cruel city ways”. That sounds to me like a terse expression of the prevailing anger at the Eastern liberal politically correct Establishment elite.

    One more comment, admittedly crude. It concerns the sheriff’s use of the word “un-effable”. I don’t think he is simply being ignorant. I think the “eff” part has the same meaning as when one says “eff you”. He is saying that the Schoolmarm is not sexual, not sexually available. She says, “I suppose when you speak of the ineffable you are speaking of me.” Which the sheriff confirms. This is another of her deep faults: women are for sex, and she won’t conform to this expectation. When I picture the Schoolmarm, I think of stern, independent women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Carry Nation.

    I have to recognize that neither of our exegeses takes account of/explains the schoolmarm shooting the swearing cowboy in the opening paragraph. As Eric wrote:

    I” think I liked Melinda’s explanation better than the story itself. She totally leaves out the events of the first two paragraphs, which is helpful; the thing is a lot easier to make sense of if you pretend the story didn’t start off with a joke about the protagonist shooting someone.”

    I also have to admit I can’t fit in that whole philosophical monologue about time and eternity and rocks. It hurt my head, too.

  11. Dennis Lang November 30, 2016 at 11:34 am

    Beautiful!

    Do you think the author had an elaborate subtext in mind? And whether he did or not should its presence or absence impact the reader intellectually and emotionally?

    Is it less of a story lacking this subtext?

  12. Eric November 30, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    Well, yes, I would say that this is a lesser story if there is no subtext. The last half concerns ineffability, the nature of time, how the only things that matter are rocks, etc. When someone brings topics like this up, I generally assume that either (a) they have some subtext in mind, or (b) they have been smoking a lot of weed. Barring one of those situations, these kinds of discussions are no fun.

  13. Melinda November 30, 2016 at 5:50 pm

    William-Thank you for your take on the story, very thought-provoking. While I think it’s a viable interpretation—I agree with most everything you say about gender—I feel it’s a particular aspect of the overlying idea. For decades, females have been trying to broaden their role in family and society. Modern technology has allowed most individuals to attain a more creative purpose in life. Yet change moves slowly, and yes, that snail pace also applies to the way society interprets itself.

    Dennis Lang-I can’t imagine a writer who spends extensive time and expense on education, writing and publishing (rejection, rejection, rejection) not caring about the deeper meaning of their words as well as its emotional impact on their reader. Writers change people’s lives.

    Eric-The opening, I felt, was a comment on change. When the old dies, making way for new thoughts and interpretations of reality and human purpose, someone/thing must roll off, disappear—be replaced. And, at times, when that change occurs, it feels to some like a murderous violation. As well, I think the opening is intended to set Coover’s punny tone and grab the reader’s attention with an opening hook.

  14. Dennis Lang November 30, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Melinda–Not at all. I’m sorry if I expressed that poorly. Of course we care how and if a story we create is “meaningful” in some personal way to the reader.
    I’ve questioned whether in order to be “meaningful” it requires an underlying symbology in translation to achieve it. To become “significant”?
    I thought this story was a clever invention, iconic characters acting and reacting in unexpected ways with an economy of language toward an unexpected outcome. Very engaging. The author may well have intended it all metaphorically. (Or it may have evolved organically from a kernel of the imagined situation in the saloon.) I’m wondering how much that should matter to our appreciation of the piece either way.
    Maybe it should.

  15. Jeanne Gent November 30, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    I actually thought she asked for a rock to hold as a means of hitting the sheriff in the head so she could escape. Her whole riff on the rocks as a ploy to get one.

  16. William November 30, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    Dennis –

    I’m in synch with what I see as the direction of your questions. Speaking personally, I would answer “yes” to all 3 of them. Except that I would leave out “elaborate”. I’m thinking of “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses”, by Irwin Shaw. It’s a simple story, yet its subtext portends something momentous for the two main characters.

    I do believe that a story lacking a subtext is less of a story. It has less to give us, or show us. And I find such stories less enjoyable.

    How do stories impact us intellectually and emotionally? In my experience, I get a bigger jolt when I sense that there is something more afoot than the apparent action or dialogue.

    It’s best when a reader grasps the surface narrative of the story and its underlying motif both at the same time while he’s reading it. That delivers the greatest pleasure. Like reading “A Guest of the Nation” and following the action while realizing that the narrator is forever altered by the gruesomeness of war that he has observed.

    A second route is to sense that a story is trying to tell us something, but to need help in bringing out what it is saying. I feel that way about the John Barthelme story, “Me and Miss Mandible”.

    Or one can completely miss the import of the story.

    I can illustrate these routes from my own experience with 3 Hemingway stories

    “A Way You’ll Never Be”: I got the fact that it was showing something deeper than the surface and grasped what it was on first reading. By the way, I just read that initially the critics dismissed this story as pointless.

    “Big Two-Hearted River”: I could sense more going on than a fishing trip, and I got some of the occult material on first reading. But I’ve re-read it once to get more, and will have to re-read it again.

    “Hills Like White Elephants”: When I first read this, I was obtuse and didn’t pick up the sub rosa struggle.

    Of course, there are stories that do not have anything to show other than their surface. Ann Beattie, Thomas McGuane and Tessa Hadley write this kind of story.

    As Eric said, stories without a subtext are less fun to discuss.

  17. Dennis Lang November 30, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    Great!
    Thanks William. I hear you.
    I’m only familiar with the Shaw story, read about 1,000 years ago.
    But here’s the distinction I’m making, probably in my lack of sophistication. “GITSD” was on its surface an exploration of gender differences and perceptions, beautifully expressed in dialogue. I don’t see it as a “subtext” in the same way some have chosen to speculatively analyze this Coover story as a metaphor for a lot else. Maybe Coover had it all in mind but I question whether that enhances the merit of what he’s created here.
    I agree, the conversation is fun. Remindful of all those English lit classes I took!
    Thanks All!

  18. William December 1, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    Melinda:

    While I think it’s a viable interpretation—I agree with most everything you say about gender—I feel it’s a particular aspect of the overlying idea.

    Of course, I was just springboarding from your original observations.

    Dennis:

    I take this to mean that it is an object complete in itself–like a sculpture perhaps. To seek some meaning beyond it is not only pointless but will fail to enrich.

    I agree. That’s a good description of the immediate art experience – painting, sculpture, film, fiction.

    Dennis:

    Maybe Coover had it all in mind but I question whether that enhances the merit of what he’s created here.

    For me the subtext often makes the story more enjoyable. It’ a double pleasure. I think this matters to a lot of people who are interested in literature, otherwise there would not be so much commentary.

    Dennis:

    I’m only familiar with the Shaw story, read about 1,000 years ago.
    But here’s the distinction I’m making, probably in my lack of sophistication. “GITSD” was on its surface an exploration of gender differences and perceptions, beautifully expressed in dialogue. I don’t see it as a “subtext” in the same way some have chosen to speculatively analyze this Coover story as a metaphor for a lot else.

    You’re right, that was probably not the best choice of an example.

    Dennis:

    I agree, the conversation is fun. Remindful of all those English lit classes I took!

    True, except that no lit class that I ever took was as stimulating or intelligent as these exchanges.

    Now I’m on to Sam Shepherd.

  19. Dennis Lang December 1, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Yup–Very thoughtful group here at the Mooks!

    Fun!

    Onward to Sam Shepherd. (And for a totally irrelevant tidbit, he and his ex, Jessica–no relation–for years had a home not far from where I’m typing this in Minnesota.)

  20. Greg December 1, 2016 at 11:57 pm

    Thank you Melinda and William for illuminating what the author created. You both have increased my understanding and enjoyment of this story. I especially appreciate Melinda your very detailed analysis, and William, your Hemingway examples are a bonus treat for me!

  21. William December 2, 2016 at 9:16 am

    Greg —

    Glad I could help.

  22. Greg December 3, 2016 at 11:45 am

    And William, thank you for emphasizing the author’s commentary on the attitude towards women. The “un-effable” part went over my head….thank you for giving me that extra meaning that the author was getting at!

  23. William December 3, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    Sure. I’m not positive that he meant that, I may be overinterpreting, but It’s worth thinking about.

  24. mehbe December 6, 2016 at 8:26 am

    The effing part of “un-effable” struck me right away as being part of the meaning – I’m fairly certain the author intended it. And it fits my idea that one reason he’s getting rid of her is because she isn’t serving a reproductive purpose.

    I read this a day after I read the Sam Shepard, and the two stories seem oddly complementary in their focus on gender roles.

  25. William December 6, 2016 at 11:36 am

    mehbe —

    reproductive purpose is certainly one interpretation. but I think it’s more for pleasure. the schoolmarm is just no fun at all!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.