“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
Communication 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.