Taking a break from the more challenging works we have recently discussed, the Great Books group this week read two short stories: “Fat,” by Raymond Carver, and “Not a Good Girl,” by Perri Klass. Both are in an anthology of short stories published by the Great Books Foundation titled The 7 Deadly Sins, and although the anthology is not a collection of moral exempla, many of the stories explore the darker nuances and complexities of human relationships, including works by authors as diverse as William Faulkner, Nathan Englander, Elizabeth Bowen, Xu Xi, and Flannery O’Connor.
“Fat” is told by a first-person narrator, a waitress who tells her friend Rita about a customer she recently served. The customer is an obese man dining alone, and although the narrator’s coworkers insensitively make fun of the man behind his back, the narrator finds herself slowly transformed from indifference into deep empathy as she serves him. She becomes aware that she’s “after something” from him, though she doesn’t know what, and she notices subtle details about him that reveal his humanity—his “creamy fingers,” his habit of “puffing” when he speaks, his relish and gusto as he eats, his isolation. By the end of the story, the narrator ends up not only defending the man against her friends’ insensitivity, but identifying with him, and feeling in the last line of the tale that her entire life “is going to change.”
Similarly, “Not a Good Girl” is told by a first-person female narrator. But whereas the narrator of “Fat” comes to an intimate sympathy for another human being, this narrator’s priority in life is complete isolation from intimacy with others. A researcher in immunology, the narrator recounts her 48-hour “two-night stand” with a graduate student named Eric.
Though he initially seems as emotionally detached as the narrator, the young and naïve Eric eventually develops feelings for the narrator, pathetically asking her as she gets out of the car at the airport, “If we lived near each other, would you have an affair with me?” The narrator, however, will have none of it.
Throughout the liaison, she consciously avoids emotional bonding: “Isn’t the point of a one-night stand that you get off on the novelty and adventure without having to worry about the other person?” she claims at one point, while at another juncture in the short affair, she finds herself mentally “redesigning” her lover to suit her own fantasies. While early in the story the narrator vacillates between detachment and the temptation for connection, ultimately she distances herself from the whole experience, concluding the story by comparing her two-night stand to a seminar or experiment in which emotions—and people—are variables to be controlled.
Though both stories chart different emotional trajectories for their narrators, they both provoke fascinating questions about our desires for intimacy and connection, as well as our equally prevalent tendencies toward selfishness and isolation.
Why do we sometimes stay in relationships with people we do not like, or even in relationships that are harmful to us? What causes us to connect with some people, and to isolate ourselves from others? To what extent can we—or should we—control others? What do we expect to gain from relationships, and what do we expect to give them? And why do we sometimes treat others as a means to our own ends, rather than as ends in themselves?