Short Reading Lessons in Writing: The Lost Phoebe

It’s National Library Week!
Hug a librarian!
Thank them with chocolate!

And don’t forget to vote for those levies!

And to start off the week, here’s what I did at work today:

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 no one really notices when you mix regular with decaf to stretch it out.


This month’s story is “The Lost Phoebe” by Theodore Dreiser, a journalist and author who wrote several well-known novels, including Sister Carrie (1900, 1912*), Jennie Gerhardt, and An American Tragedy (1925).   Although he’s not considered a short-story writer, this one was included in The Fifty Best Short Stories, 1915-1965.

On a small, increasingly run-down, Midwestern farm, an old, married couple depend on each other— until the wife dies.  The husband refuses help and slowly descends into depression and inactivity.  One night, he sees a shadow that looks like his lost Phoebe, and creates a belief, born of loneliness, that she’s only left him, as she often threatened to do when he became quarrelsome.  Completely invested in his self-delusion, he goes looking for her every night, eventually leaving his home for good, living off the charity of his neighbors as he searches from place to place. After seven years of this, he has another vision of his Phoebe and leaps off a cliff to be with her.  When his body is found, his face wears a peaceful smile.

We decided early on that this is one of those stories that you can interpret down to the bones, until even the author, were he alive, might look at you and say, “Seriously?”  But that didn’t stop us.

Age is subjective and settings matter.

The group found “Lost Phoebe”  a direct contrast to last month’s story, which is also about an older gentleman who is living with the limitations of old age, but sits on the other end of the scale in tone and also in assumptions about age.  This story was written in 1916, and it shows.

While one woman jokingly resented that the seventy-year old protagonist was considered “elderly” and therefore of “little interest,” the majority of them took the time period  into consideration and were sympathetic to the couple’s isolation and the man’s inability—some said, “stubborn refusal”— to carry on without his wife.

Only one person actively disliked this story.  She had no patience with either the husband or the wife, who did nothing to improve their lot, and hated that the older man had to go insane to get moving.  “I’m seventy, and I haven’t slowed down!” she said.

“Back then, you might have,” said her friend.


Motivations are assigned by the writer, but accepted by the reader.

The woman who disliked the story didn’t understand why the author had written it.  She kept hoping things would get better . . . and in her opinion, they didn’t.

But the rest thought it was sweet—a touching story of love and devotion in harsh times.  They believed that the husband did have a purpose, and did, in fact, fulfill it by finding his wife.

One reader brought up Man of La Mancha—Don Quixote had to be delusional to be happy and she felt that the search for Phoebe was the same kind of thing.  The idea that he could do something to reunite himself with his wife kept the old man going—it kept him happy and active.  Who are we to say he’s wrong?

One of us remained unconvinced.  “He threw himself over a cliff.   He could have saved himself seven years if he’d done that on page four.”

“He didn’t commit suicide, he found peace with Phoebe.”

“He didn’t just stumble over that cliff—he jumped.

“It was a leap of faith.”


Sometimes, good writing does save a story. 

Everyone thought “Lost Phoebe” was beautifully written, with lyrical phrases and descriptions.

There was a balance between the depression of the man and the purposeful hope that his illusion gave him that kept this story from toppling into complete angst.  It was decided that if it hadn’t been as well-written as it was, it would have been far too depressing—a terrible joke that the author played on his poor character.

As it was, the quality of the writing allowed the old man keep his dignity, and these readers appreciated it.

Most of them anyway.  “Hmmph.”


*Interesting fact:  Sister Carrie was first published by Doubleday in 1900, but the owners of the publishing house hated the subject, refused to promote it, and it sank, even as his next book came out.  It can’t be a coincidence that it took Mr. Dreiser eleven years to write another one.  But Floyd Dell, a literary critic—who is dear to my heart for several reasons that need their own post—convinced him that Sister Carrie needed to be read.  The novel was eventually republished in 1912 to great critical success.   He ended up writing twelve novels, several short stories, and ten or so non-fiction books.