Homely Girl, A Life


This was the title story of a 1995 collection (along with Fame and Fitter’s Night) by Arthur Miller. To begin with it’s an example of those two nations divided by a single language, for the American usage of ‘homely’ has no real equivalent in english English. Ugly is a tad too strong, and unprepossessing too Latinate for everyday use. Our sense of ‘home loving’ is not part of the American package.

It’s also a story that raises the question of what is a short story. It can be ‘perused in an hour or two’, so fits in with that old Poe definition, and it’s nowhere near as long as some of D.H.Lawrence’s shorts, but at 40 pages in the 2007 ‘collected’ edition it is a longer than the average short.

It’s also a story that does what it says on the label. It tells the story of Janice, though we don’t get to know her name until the bottom of the fourth page, and I wonder what that does to a story – what it does to a reader’s perception of it?

Janice’s story begins late in her life, and flashes back to her teenage years. She has an unfulfilling relationship with her ‘first husband’, the glue that holds them together being an idealistic socialism that gets its soft edges knocked off as the thirties turn into the forties and the Second World War intervenes. Janice struggles to become herself, which in turn means separating from her husband. It’s a whole life story in one sense, in that we see her starting out on this quest, and we see her arriving at what she recognises as her destination. Gloomy as it is, and I found it gloomy, it is an uplifting story; a story of victory over life. Gloom and achievement seems to sit well together in Miller’s short stories.

A question it raised for me, was that old one about the balance between form and content, and which of those two are most important. Traditional lit-crit tells me they must be a perfect balance, but that if push comes to shove, form is what makes good writing. As a reader, I know that when push comes to shove, content is what makes good story. Yet, when content is thought to be good, the academics must tell us, it is only because the writing has presented it well. Many books are said to be flawed, and especially among ones that are thought to be successful. But are the flaws we perceive failures of form, or of content? Are they disjunctions between the two?

It was the movement from external to internal that caught my interest. Not only the reader, but Janice too makes this journey as one by one the political enthusiasms that have driven her life are found to be wanting. Ultimately it is her view of herself, Miller seems to be telling us, that offers here hope of salvation. Stories like this are not assessed by the clarity of their prose, or the forcefulness of their arguments, but by the extent to which they chime in tune with our perceptions of our own lives. This must especially be the case where we have lived through, or close after the times depicted. Have we learned the same lessons, and suffered similar disillusions?

Not only the times, but the time scale of the story might resonate with us. Here with have a woman over half a century – itself a rarity in the short story form – and if we have lived for as long a period can we help but make comparisons? Have we made similar journeys from the external to the internal? Have our relationships developed, and foundered, and been replaced, as hers have? Questions like this draw our attention to content rather than to form, but that in itself might not mean that the content has outperformed the form. It might mean the exact opposite. We don’t see the structure of the wood, for the trees.

I confess I didn’t find myself appreciating the purple passage here. There were no paragrpahs that I had to read again because they were so beautiful, no sentences that leapt off the page. I think Miller’s story is perhaps knitted together too tightly for that to happen, or perhaps I am simply a poor reader. Cast into 6 chapter-like segments, themselves internally divided in places by single line white spaces as well as paragraphs, the story remains undoubtedly a single whole. The phases of Janice’s life hang together, rather than form separate stories, and the last sentence, a mere two-liner, seems to me to carry the entire weight of an ending, and most of that, concentrated – for me the true hallmark of the short story form – into its final word.