A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month. The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along. That staff member is me.
I’m learning a lot about how readers read and that chocolate non-dairy creamer helps cover dubious coffee-making skills.
This month’s story was “The Witch a la Mode” by D.H. Lawrence, and the only thing about which we all agreed was that the main character shouldn’t get married. In fact, the majority of us thought that neither the main character nor D.H. Lawrence liked women very much.
This might have changed had our one male reader been present, and I’m sorry we didn’t have the benefit of his opinion. On the other hand, our all-female group was able to talk freely about the story—not that they ever have much trouble.
“Witch a la Mode,”* describes the inner turmoil of Bernard, who is engaged to the respectable (if boring) Constance but desires the passionate (if sharp) Winifred. Although he is on his way by train to visit his fiancé, Bernard feels compelled to stop for the night and visit the home of a friend, knowing that Winifred will be there. Although she seems as unsettled in his presence as he is in hers, they go to her rooms—as they have done at least once before—where they discuss how wrong they are for each other, though neither can end their affair. Bernard, who hates and fears Winifred for his loss of control and for her demands that he meet her passion for passion, assumes that he is the moth to her flame and accuses her of wanting his destruction, but as they argue, it is Winifred who literally catches fire from a careless spark. Bernard throws a rug over her to smother her burning dress and runs away.
Here’s the breakdown of the discussion:
This was the first story this year that the majority disliked—and it was all Bernard’s fault.
Bernard, according to my notes, is selfish, shallow, egotistical, childish, and silly. He doesn’t seem to see or care about the damage he’s doing to Winifred, and while he feels guilty about hurting Constance, this doesn’t stop him. He’s focused on his needs, and his alone.
Even the three readers who liked the story did so because of the symbolism and the rich descriptions, not the characters, and especially not Bernard.
“He didn’t learn anything,” said one. “His type never does.”
I did notice, though, that the criticized Bernard as if he was a real person—he might be a putz, but they were still invested in his character. Something to think about.
Symbolism—a little dab’ll do you
“There’s that moth again,” said a reader.
“Did the author really have to set her on fire at the end and then have Bernard sweep her under a rug?” asked another.
“He’s not very subtle.”
“He’s hitting us with a hammer.”
“Maybe this is proof that Winifred is really the moth?” I said.
“So’s his poor fiancé, and he didn’t have to set her on fire.”
“Maybe the author is trying to get through to that idiot, Bernard,” said the one who noticed the moth.
“Good luck—he ran away.”
Have I mentioned how much I love this group?
Another woman—who fully admits that her grandkids hooked her on the “vampire thing”—looked at all the description and symbols on the first few pages (flushes, stirring blood, pulses, long columns of throats) and assumed that this was a gothic novel and Winifred was going to go for Bernard’s throat.
The woman sitting next to me muttered that she wished Winifred had.
We’ve come a long way, baby, and we don’t want to go back . . . Or at least, not for Bernard
The discussion of what Bernard was doing to Constance and Winifred turned into a discussion of women’s rights from the time the story was written (in the early 20th century), to the present—or more accurately, to a discussion of men’s wrongs.
Bernard’s assumption that Winifred was completely to blame and that marrying a woman he could control was the virtuous way to go, drove several readers into a not-so-quiet fury, and though they accepted that Bernard was a product of his times, they didn’t feel the need to forgive him for not overcoming the limitation of those times.
They don’t mind men behaving badly . . . as long as there was a lesson learned.
“Winifred learned one. Heaven help Constance.”
And on that, we adjourned.
* “A la Mode” meaning “of the fashion” and not “covered in ice cream,” just in case you were wondering exactly what kind of misogyny we were talking about, here.