“The Crippled Man”
by William Trevor
originally published in the December 15, 2008 issue of The New Yorker as “The Woman of the House”
from Last Stories

William Trevor Last StoriesCommunication is difficult even if everyone is trying their hardest, but in “The Crippled Man” William Trevor seems to be saying that sometimes we understand all too well, even in silence, and that the best course of action, even the course we are forced to take, is to feign misunderstanding. With willful miscommunication, we can always find some comfort that the other person suffers from some degree of uncertainty about what we know. For some, this is the way to get through a tough life.

“The Crippled Man” was originally published in The New Yorker in December 2008 as “The Woman of the House.” For reasons I don’t know, here the title shifts its focus from the woman to the man; or, to put it more spoilery, from the person who survives the story to the person who does not.

There are few characters here: the woman of the house is Martina. We first meet her driving back home from the butcher’s. For years this butcher, named Costigan, has “helped” Martina, giving her better cuts of meat than she ordered, even giving back some or all of the cost. Trevor makes a point of telling us that when he did this she never said anything. Of course, this has always been his way of paying her back for allowing him to invite her to check out the meat in the shed, “his hands all over her.” Martina is nearing fifty, and Costigan doesn’t invite her back any longer — just ruffles her clothes and smudges her make-up these days — “but the days when he used to were always there between them.”

This history, an almost physical presence to be shared, is never spoken about. It is not acknowledged. It is easier — for so many reasons — to refuse to give the experience words. It’s almost like words are both too precise for comfort, but also fail to adequately account for all that is actually going on. Words shape, sometimes accurately and sometimes not, and certain things are best left amorphous and ambiguous.

This type of silence comes up in the first paragraphs of the story, where we meet our other characters. The crippled man — he doesn’t get a name — is talking to a couple of young foreigners who are looking for work. He wants them to paint the house — something that hasn’t been done for nearly two decades — and they are haggling over a price. When they refuse to do it at the crippled man’s price, he makes as if to shoo them away. However:

They didn’t go, as if they hadn’t understood. It was a ploy of theirs to pretend not to understand, to frown and simulate confusion because, in any conversation, it was convenient sometimes to appear to be at a loss.

Much as Martina has, these two men in their twenties have found that silent stupor is often the best way to get from Point A to Point B. It’s not that Point B is where they want to be, it’s not a score, it’s not their dream (Trevor makes it clear that they’ve forgotten their dreams); rather, Point B is the next rung on the precarious ladder of survival.

Martina and the crippled man rely on miscommunication as well. He often pretends not to hear her, and she no longer tells him much of anything going on. In fact, they themselves are together out of necessity, not friendship and certainly not love. It was convenient:

They were distantly related, had been together in the farmhouse since his mother died twelve years ago and his father the following winter. It was another relative who had suggested the union, since Martina was on her own and only occasionally employed. Her cousin — for they had agreed that they were cousins of a kind — would have otherwise to be taken into a home; and she herself had little to lose by coming to a farm where the grazing was parcelled out, rent received annually, where now and again another field was sold.

Trevor doesn’t make it entirely clear what legal framework is around their “union.” Are these two, who call themselves “cousins of a kind,” married? Certainly the law offers more benefits. It looks to me like Martina made such legal union a condition to their union:

Martina’s crippled cousin, who since birth had been confined as he was now, had for Martina the attraction of a legal stipulation: in time she would inherit what was left.

Martina doesn’t mind that most people assume the crippled man is dead. She stays silent on the subject.

As the story moves along, we sense the tensions underlying these relationships built on silence and misdirection. During a long spell of rain, when the two workers couldn’t pain the house, something strange happens. The house now has a different kind of silence. It appears the woman of the house has used silence to get to overcome one final rung of survival, and the men are going to stay silent as well:

They did not say this was a grave, or remark on how the rank grass, in wide straight path from the gate, had been crushed and had recovered.

They don’t know exactly what happened. We don’t know exactly what happened, either. It hasn’t been put into words. Instead, we have suspicions, shifting ideas of what may have happened, why, how. This, rather than anything solid, is what remains:

The woman’s history was not theirs to know, even though they were part of it themselves. Their circumstances made them that, as hers made her what she’d become.

When I first read this story nearly ten years ago, I remember finishing it and immediately reading it again. Even after two readings, close together, I didn’t quite know what to make of any of it. I think now that that is part of it. Trevor is not making it clear. He’s allowing us to wonder, to doubt, to come up with a way to think the best of the woman of the house when we might suspect the worst.

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By |2018-06-04T23:38:40+00:00June 6th, 2018|Categories: Book Reviews, William Trevor|4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Greg June 7, 2018 at 6:04 am

    Thank you Trevor for sharing your passion over these last stories from William! I will definitely return to comment here during my July summer vacation as it will be spent reading this gem of a book.

  2. Trevor Berrett June 15, 2018 at 12:32 am

    I really can’t wait till you get to it, too, Greg. And I hope you have a more reader-friendly vacation than I am having! I’ve been out all week and have read exactly zero pages! We’ve been having too much fun, so when I get back to our room at night I’m way too tired to even try to read. I guess I will just wait until I get back over the weekend!

  3. David August 16, 2018 at 12:06 pm

    I just read this story and I loved it. This is Trevor at his best with such very simple, but vividly descriptive sentences. He has a great way of getting inside these characters and showing them to us without betraying the fact that they don;t reveal themselves fully to anyone. I hate the original title of the story and only think the newer one is meh, but an improvement. I don’t see why either of these characters should be named as if they are *the* central character of the story. It really is the story of four people, in two pairs (although the painter brothers are not really very distinct characters from each other). If I was tying to be a little too clever about it I might suggest the title “Two Dyads”. So maybe “The Crippled Man” is good enough.
    .
    I want to pick up on two of your comments, Trevor. First this:
    .
    Trevor doesn’t make it entirely clear what legal framework is around their “union.” Are these two, who call themselves “cousins of a kind,” married? Certainly the law offers more benefits. It looks to me like Martina made such legal union a condition to their union.
    .
    I disagree with the idea that she would have wanted a legal wedding to ensure her inheritance. The crippled man (Tcm) makes a point of saying that the workmen are good Catholics, which is why he trusts them. For a man as religious as he is, I can’t see him going for what is in essence a sham wedding and even if he did it would have to be a church affair. What makes more sense to me is a more simple solution – she made him stipulate in his will that she inherits from him. Since he seems to have no closer family and she is some sort of cousin, as well as living with him, it would not be odd for him to agree to this.
    .
    You also seem to think there is an open question about whether or not Martina killed Tcm. You say,
    .
    We don’t know exactly what happened, either. It hasn’t been put into words. Instead, we have suspicions, shifting ideas of what may have happened, why, how.” … and … “He’s allowing us to wonder, to doubt, to come up with a way to think the best of the woman of the house when we might suspect the worst.
    .
    The idea that it was anything but a natural death never occurred to me. Seeing the idea suggested, it seems wrong for a couple of reasons. First, she has no reason to kill him. Nothing has changed in their arrangement that would make it make sense to suddenly decide to kill him. That would be a very extreme move to make (even to consider making), so there would need to be a suggestion of why she might decide to do it for it to be a plausible idea. Second, if she were going to kill him, she picked the worst possible moment. The painters are off for a few days because of the weather, but she knows they will be coming back for many many more days to finish the job. In fact, despite doing her best to keep them from finding out that Tcm is dead, they are able to figure it out. Surely if she were going to kill Tcm she would have been better off waiting until the day after the workers left.
    .
    Over all I found the story not to be hard to understand and I don’t see that there is anything he does not make clear. One other aspect of the story you did not emphasize is the contrasting ideas of trust and suspicion on the one had and kindness on the other. Martina worries that Tcm is too trusting to the workers, who could just come in and rob them. The workers worry that if Tcm has died that Martina might refuse to pay the agreed amount. They all seem to fear that the other people could entirely upset their world. Yet the story starts with Tcm trusting the workers. This despite the fact they have (out of self preservation) deceived him about where they are from leading him to a false assumption about them being Catholic. But his trust sets the events in motion. Martina, despite the workers’ worries, treats them well, always bringing tea, and does not cheat them. The workers, despite Martina’s fears, do not even seem to consider robbing them – the worst they consider is not coming back at all because the other work they got pays more. But even then they honour their agreement. At the end of the story, they prove to be even more trustworthy when they decide to keep her secret about Tcm’s death.
    .
    Fears lead to distrust, but underneath the surface, we find a quartet of decent people who are honest, honourable, and kind, even to strangers very different from themselves. It’s a beautiful story.

  4. Trevor Berrett August 17, 2018 at 3:12 pm

    I’ll need to read it yet again to see if I was stretching and letting my natural suspicion that all people are murderers seep into the story :-) . Thanks for sharing your insights, David. In particular, your distillations of the theme of fear and distrust is wonderful!

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