by Amanda Bourne
In his article titled “The Marginalized People in the Novels of Richard Ford,” literary critic Huey Guagliardo asserts that “everyone is marginal(ized)” in Ford’s works (3). However, marginalization is often contingent upon the voices present in the narrative and Ford’s short stories in the Rock Springs collection are notable for their male narrators. Not only are the existing women unheard, but they are also unseen. Many of Ford’s short stories take an ambiguous approach to the mother or wife figure, who is often physically absent from the plot. “Everyone” may be marginalized in Ford’s works, however, the most marginalized are the women who are pushed out of the narrative before it even begins, or who are otherwise exploited by the text. By examining “Going to the Dogs,” “Children,” and “Great Falls,” we find that these are texts where the absence of the wife or mother is highlighted by the narrator. Marginalizing these female characters allows Ford to develop a Western survival story that demonstrates an overarching concern for the masculine identity.
“Going to the Dogs” opens by declaring the absence of the narrator’s wife who had “just gone out west with a groom from the local dog track” (Ford 99). The narrator, who is nicknamed “Curly,” but calls himself “Lloyd,” encounters two female hunters, invites them in for coffee, and ends up sleeping with one of them. They leave soon afterwards, reinforcing the sense of aimlessness promoted by Lloyd at the beginning of the story. Similarly, in “Children,” George’s mother “was gone for good by then, though we didn’t know that” (70). Claude and George take Sherman’s underage mistress fishing for the day, and conclude the story by taking her to the bus stop, where she leaves without telling Sherman. “Great Falls” is different from the previous two short stories because the mother is not only a physical presence, but is also a major part of the plot. During the story, she leaves Jackie’s father, and moves out of the house with Woody. When she meets with Jackie at the motel the next day, she says that she’d “like a less domestic life,” and then fades into the margins of the narrator’s life (47). Jackie later says that he has “seen his mother from time to time – in one place or another, with one man or another” (49). However, “Great Falls” is similar to the other stories because the mother/wife figure is still marginalized through her abandonment of the domestic life. Thus, even in the aimless, ambiguous narration found in all three stories, the mother or wife figure is still marginalized through her presence, or lack thereof. Huey Guagliardo in “The Marginal People in the Novels of Richard Ford,” notes that “the more Ford’s exiled and rootless characters pursue their own identities and struggle to gain independence and control of their lives, the more marginalized they become” (5). Although on one hand the presence of Ford’s narrators allows them to struggle to gain this independence, they are also marginalized by their presence in an environment that forces them to deconstruct their masculine identities. The absence of the wife or mother figure seems to symbolize an escape from this same environment, which is defined in Ford’s work as a place where man can prove his masculinity. This conception of setting resembles earlier depictions of the rugged West as a place where men could redefine themselves and gain wealth and/or land.
Ford’s setting is an important component to his stories, and isolates his masculine characters against an unforgiving landscape. In multiple interviews, the author claims that his writing is not regional (often in the same breath, he claims that his writing is not masculine), however all three stories selected are vaguely set in the Montana west, where “it is an empty, lonely place if you are not a wheat farmer” (Seiler 62, 64; Ford 69). All three stories are centered around trying to escape this environment, with Florida often named as a safe haven, or some sort of utopian paradise in comparison to the stark Montana landscape. In these stories, Ford creates a new Western where the focus is on surviving the environment (environment meaning circumstances that are perceived as part of the physical landscape) in order to somehow define or redefine the narrator’s masculinity. It is this connection with landscape and masculinity that transforms Ford’s stories into Westerns, and the marginalization of female mother or wife figures only accentuates this fictional striving for self-made masculinity.
Ford’s Western narratives most closely resemble what scholar Fredric Jameson calls the “transition plot,” where “the hero begins within society… (and) ends up outside society, grinding his badge scornfully in the dust” (552). High Noon, referenced here by Jameson, is the classic example of this, but in Ford’s stories, the battleground is the unforgiving Montana landscape, the protagonist is the narrator – who seeks to define his self-made manhood – and the antagonists are any obstacles that stop the narrator from achieving this ideal. These antagonists vary. In “Going to the Dogs,” the female hunters prevent the unnamed narrator from leaving town. In “Great Falls,” the mother who leaves her domestic life behind disrupts the father’s self-made man aspirations. In “Children,” as well as in the other two stories, the harsh Montana environment prevents the protagonists’ fulfillment of masculinity. True to Jameson’s “transition plot,” all three stories focus on the movement from one place to another as a way of somehow achieving masculinity. Although a variety of factors oppress the protagonist in some form or another in all three stories, the female character – absent or present – defines the success of the male protagonist’s quest.
In his article titled “Rereading American Masculinities; Re-Visions of the American Myth of Self-Made Manhood in Richard Ford’s Fiction,” scholar Josep Armengol defines American masculinity as a notion tied to the ideals of the American Revolution. This Self-Made Man values independence and marketplace success – Armengol goes so far as to define it as a “model of masculinity that derives identity entirely from a man’s activities in the public sphere, measured by accumulated wealth and social status, by geographic and social mobility” (64). This masculinity is what governs Ford’s characters and their visions of success that they ultimately fail to achieve. Says Armengol, “Ford delves into the souls of alienated men haunted by feelings of displacement… And these feelings are usually shown to result from the oppression exerted by the late capitalist system upon the working-class man” (71). What Armengol implies here is key to understanding Ford’s male narrators. The “late capitalist system,” consists of these ideas of financial success that are no longer viable in a crumbling economy, with growing income disparity between the upper and lower classes. For instance, in “Great Falls,” the narrator’s father turns to crime in order to achieve financial success, selling illegal game on the black market, and celebrating his success in the local bar. Yet, masculinity in “Great Falls” is dependent upon the narrator’s mother. When the story begins, this redefined masculinity thrives because domestic life is normal. However, the routine bar-outing is interrupted only when the family’s domestic life becomes amiss. This distinction underscores the importance of a traditional family life to the Self-Made Man ideal of masculinity. By marginalizing the wife/mother role in the narrative, Ford further deconstructs the unattainable Self-Made Man.
The goal of the male narrators in these stories is to somehow define their masculinity through their environment or actions. In “Going to the Dogs,” Lloyd fails to redefine his masculinity because the actions he takes to escape his environment are thwarted by the female hunters who “invade” his home and as a result of his carelessness, steal his money and bus ticket. Although he tries to define his masculinity through sexual potency, this action results in his ultimate failure to attain some semblance of self-made manhood. Thus, in “Going to the Dogs,” these women who claim to fit the escaped wife role are demonized as destroyers of masculinity in the same way that the traditional Western villain threatens the town’s normalized peace. The narrator’s masculinity is normalized only because it fits the expectations of American self-man manhood. In “Children,” Ford characterizes coming of age with sexual encounters. Lucy, the girl in the story, is neither a mother nor a wife, but she also seeks to escape from her family and Canadian life. Her role in the story is marginal because she is simply transient. The narrator states that both he and Claude would be gone within the next year, and their experiences with Lucy only serve to make visible their sexual desires as newly-initiated young men. She has no permanence in their lives. Her transience only accentuates the fact that this is a coming of age story for the two males, who have a ‘first’ encounter with sexual desire. This propels them to their later departure from this isolated environment, but for Lucy, it only sends her – delicate and naive – to other sexual experiences. In this sense, Lucy resembles the wife in “Great Falls,” who becomes transient, and even transparent, when she runs away with Woody, and ends up living the rest of her life with “one man or another” (Ford 49). Ford marginalizes women in the face of masculine coming-of-age by characterizing them as transient and transparent, or dangerous – a threat to the ideals of the Self-Made Man.
Lucy’s character is problematic because she has a voice in the story, as well as a physical presence, unlike the wife or mother figures in “Going to the Dogs” and “Great Falls.” As previously stated, she is transient and is a means to masculinity for the two young men. However, her presence alone in the narrative would seem to refute the idea that she is marginalized. Yet, this is not the case because she, unlike the women in the other stories, is not an adult, and therefore is not (naturally) expected to be independent. Even if she isn’t expected to be independent because of her age, her situation requires her to be independent. As a runaway, she must take the initiative of leaving, and having control over her own life. By giving her this role, it would be natural to assume that she is an independent entity. However, the storyline shows that she is not independent, but rather, passive. She is taken fishing by George and Claude, both Claude and Sherman sleep with her, and she is taken to the bus station at the end of the story. Although she initiates making out with George and taking off her dress, both actions are in the context of larger events that she has no control over. Indeed, the actions that she does have control over are mainly sexual, thus labeling her as ‘easy,’ or even promiscuous, with no control over the life-defining events that typically define the narrator’s search for masculinity. She has little control over where she goes next because it is the boys who decide to take her to the bus station in Great Falls. In comparison, the entire story is overshadowed by George’s statement that “in a year from the day I am going to tell about, in May, I would be long gone from there myself, and so would Claude” (69). Unlike the boys, who leave the isolation of the town in search of self-made manhood, Lucy’s exit is controlled by Claude and George’s decision to drive her to the bus stop, and so, what is a defining choice for the young men becomes a passive event for Lucy where others’ choices are inflicted upon her. Although Lucy is physically and vocally present in the narrative, she is passive, and has no independence because of the situation rendered upon her. In the context of the wife/mother figure in the other two short stories, Lucy is even more marginalized, and even exploited by the text (and characters) because she is a teenager who is expected to fulfill an adult’s role. Thus, even when a female character is given presence in a text, she is further marginalized, or in the case of “Going to the Dogs,” villainized.
Priscilla Leder, the author of “Men with Women: Gender Relations in Richard Ford’s Rock Springs” notes that “women characters teach men about their vulnerability in different ways,” although they “seem limited only insofar as they do not tell their own stories” (Guagliardo 99). However, telling “their own stories” is an important part of accurately representing the female voice. Although women in these short stories may be teaching men “about their vulnerability,” the woman herself is left vulnerable because of the way masculinity is prioritized above all else by Ford’s narrators. In texts where the wife or mother is absent, she is marginalized because her absence is colored by the male narrator’s perception of it. In “Children,” this absence is defined by George’s statement that “it was not unusual that people left that part of Montana. She had never liked it, and neither my father nor me ever blamed her” (Ford 82). Although permissive, the mother’s actions are only validated through the statement that they never “blamed her,” indicating such actions can only be positive when they are approved by masculine authority. In “Going to the Dogs,” the narrator “Lloyd”’s wife has left him because of his failed efforts to make money in Great Falls. His statements are ambivalent about his wife’s actions, but physically he is forced to take over a traditionally female role in the home. Leder writes that “Lloyd seems feminized… dressed in a bathrobe and baking a coffeecake… vulnerable to the overtures of strangers” (115). Thus, because of his wife’s absence, Lloyd is emasculated, and his ambivalence is turned into a frustration because this absence encroaches upon his pursuit of self-made manhood. From his perspective, the events that follow his wife’s departure leave him vulnerable, and thus, are negative in the scope of masculinity. In “Great Falls,” the child narrator – Jackie – is also ambivalent about his mother’s departure, however, her absence marginalizes her throughout the rest of his narrative. Jackie says that he’s “seen his mother from time to time – in one place or another, with one man or another” (Ford 49). Although she is not entirely absent, because of her positionality in the text, her only defense is that she’d like a “less domestic life,” which results in her characterization as the rebellious wife whose post-marriage relationships are transient, and therefore unmeaningful (47). Because Jackie is the one telling the story, we are unable to see the nuances of his parents’ relationship, and thus, our perception of the mother is characterized by Jackie’s memories and emotions. This narrative decision results in the marginalization of the wife/mother figure in all three stories.
This marginalization is driven by the environment of Ford’s new Western. The isolation already present in wild Montana is only enhanced when the mother or wife figure leaves, resulting in male narrators who are forced to deconstruct their masculine identities because of an overpowering environment that leaves them vulnerable. Women are marginalized in this new Western because their absence forces men to show this vulnerability, and the male narrator perceives this as an insult to the ideal of self-made manhood. As a result of this freedom that threatens the male search for idealized masculinity, women (both absent and present, as best illustrated in “Children”) must be marginalized in order for these male narrators to maintain some grasp on the elusive American Dream of manhood.
Armengol, Josep M. Richard Ford and the Fiction of Masculinities. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. Print.
—. “Rereading American Masculinities; Re-Visions of the American Myth of Self-Made Manhood in Richard Ford’s Fiction.” Revista De Estudios Norteamericanos 11 (2006): 63-80. Print.
Ford, Richard. “Children.” Rock Springs: Stories. New York: Vintage, 1988. 69-98. Print.
—. “Going to the Dogs.” Rock Springs: Stories. New York: Vintage, 1988. 99-108. Print.
—. “Great Falls.” Rock Springs: Stories. New York: Vintage, 1988. 29-49. Print.
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Jameson, Fredric. “Ideology, Narrative Analysis, and Popular Culture.” Theory and Society 4.4 (1977): 543-59. JSTOR. Web. 5 May 2014.
Leder, Priscilla. “Men with Women: Gender Relations in Richard Ford’s Rock Springs.” Perspectives on Richard Ford. Ed. Huey Guagliardo. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2000. 97-120. Print.
Seiler, Casey. “Richard Ford: From Mississippi to Montana, the Author of The Sportswriter and Rock Springs Crafts Fiction from the Heartland.” Conversations with Richard Ford. Ed. Huey Guagliardo. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2001. 61-65. Print.