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The desire to escape, to break free from confinement or control, emerges in William Dean Howells’ short story “Scene,” where the actual tragedy of a suicide victim appears secondary to the importance of the diversion it creates for the characters involved: the Contributor and the residents of the Irish town. Through “Scene,” Howells conveys the concept of escapism, in its various expressions, as an integral part of life.
The idea of escapism makes an immediate appearance. The story’s title implies a place or setting where an incident, real or imagined, may occur or have occurred. The use of one single word for the title, with its lack of a definite article to anchor it to a specific event, or an adjective to determine the scene’s quality or tone, implies freedom of interpretation. In the opening paragraph of the story, the residents of a poor, Irish, coastal town welcome any escape from the reality of the daily grind of their lives. Howells describes their “small Irish houses standing miserably about on the flats ankle deep, as it were, in little pools of the tide” (Howells 190). By using personification, Howells ties the residents to the confines of their surroundings. The people, like the houses, appear miserable not only in their shabby appearance but in their mood. Just as the houses remain stuck “ankle deep” (190) in the remnants of the tide water, their inhabitants seem trapped by the circumstances of their lives, their freedom curtailed. References to “broken fences,” “vacant lots,” and “insulted sign-boards [that] forbade them to trespass” (190) reinforce the poverty and banality of their existence where even the defaced signs forbid exploration and escape.
When a local girl does escape her world by drowning herself, a resident remarks, “It was the best thing she could do” (190). Not only might the reason of her suicide have made life unbearable in such a closed society, but, quite simply saved her from a dull existence. The news of her tragic death and the intention to recover the victim’s body promises a diversion from the dreariness of the townspeople’s lives. Howells describes “a strange stir of people upon the streets” (190). The words “strange stir” imply uncommon interest and activity. The “flying” (190) of children through the streets and the “fluttering” (190) of women to and fro reinforce this activity; the verbs suggesting a lightness of spirit generated by the welcome distraction. As the title of the story suggests, the people prepare to observe a scene, in this case, the discovery of a girl’s body. The event provides an opportunity to escape from the bleakness of their everyday lives.
Howells provides another example of escapism through the character of the contributor. In contrast to the townsfolk, the writer initially evades the reality of the dismal Irish town and the growing interest of its people. Immersing himself in the beauty of the autumn morning, “the contributor moved onward down the street, luminous on either hand with crimsoning and yellowing maples, he was so filled with the tender serenity of the scene, as not to be troubled by the spectacle” (190). The contributor focuses on the surrounding maple trees and the various shades of their deep red and yellow foliage rendered even brighter in the sunlight. A sense of “tender serenity,” gentle peacefulness, created by his vision, serves to distract the contributor so as not to be “troubled,” inconvenienced, or disturbed emotionally, by “the spectacle” of this poor Irish town. The word “spectacle” implies performance, which in turn places the writer as a spectator, distanced from the real events around him. The fact that only a “sense,” (190) a partial awareness, of the increasing noise and movement around him “penetrated,” (190) forcefully pierced, his consciousness implies how successfully he removed himself emotionally from reality.
The very length of the second sentence of the story, over fourteen lines, suggests not only the increasing activity and chaos in the street, but also the contributor’s gradual awareness of the scene as it penetrates his consciousness. His imagination offered him a perfect diversion, a perfect escape, from the real circumstances at hand.
Like the people of the town, once aware of the girl’s suicide, the contributor appears to distance himself, thereby escaping, from the true facts and emotions of the event. Howells mocks how “that literary soul fell at once to patching himself up a romantic story for the suicide, after the pitiful fashion of this fiction-ridden age” (191). The phrases “fell at once” and “patching himself up” suggest not only the haste in which he must create his fiction but his attempt to bring together the requisite components of a romantic story, as demanded by his readership. He appraises the events in terms of setting and character, finding both disappointing. The bleak setting of the Irish town repulses the romantic writer since it bore “so slight relation to the French roofs and modern improvements of the comfortable Charlesbridge which he knew” (191). The contributor would prefer a more refined setting for his story, something more engaging for his readers who also desire to escape.
Assuming that the girl died in shame, having succumbed to seduction, the contributor begrudgingly labels his character as “the Fallen Woman” (191) whom he dubs “a very tiresome figure to the imagination” (191). Clearly, overuse of this type of character in literature has rendered it worthless. The Fallen Woman “was a spectacle to wring one’s heart,” (191) but seemed “a fatality” (191) that she be “the principal personage of this little scene” (191). The words “spectacle” and “scene” distance the contributor to that of a spectator appraising a drama, whilst the adjective “little” sums up his virtual indifference to the tragedy of the real situation: the death, not of a “principal personage,” but of a young girl. The contributor’s disappointment in and insensitivity to the real facts of the scene reduce him to a mere “spectator awaiting some entertainment, with a faint inclination to be critical” (191). Together with the earlier use of “spectacle” and “scene,” the word “spectator” once more distances the contributor from a true involvement in the scene. By romanticizing reality, the contributor and his readers look for an escape from the unpleasantness of life.
As the contributor creates more details for his story, and the anticipation of the residents increases with the discovery of the girl’s body, their escapism deepens. Howells describes how “there passed through the motley crowd, not so much a cry as a sensation of ‘They’ve found her, they’ve found her!’ and then the one terrible picturesque fact, ‘She was standing upright!’” (191). The word “motley” emphasizes the ordinariness of the crowd, thus, making the details of her discovery more exciting to them. The use of the exclamation marks, together with the word “sensation,” captures the buzz that spreads through the crowd as it visualizes the striking image of the victim standing upright in the mud. Her position suggests a final defiance of the high-minded who would have shunned her, had she lived.
Yet, her escape remains incomplete. The poignancy of the information “They are bringing her-bringing her in a wagon” (192) seems lost to the contributor and the crowd. The girl receives as little respect in death as she would have in life. The repetition of the information, “And now they were bringing her in a wagon,” (193) isolated and on a line of its own, attempts to refocus him, the crowd, and the reader on the current events actually happening. The noise and motion of the children in the crowd steadily increases as their excitement grows. In anticipation and excitement of the funeral car’s arrival, Howells describes “a noiseless riot stirring the legs and arms of the boys into frantic demonstration” (193) until finally they “could no longer be restrained; they broke out with wild yells and danced madly” (194). Howells’ diction: “frantic,” “wild,” and “madly,” suggests sudden freedom, an escape from restraints. The growing excitement of the children and the distraction of the contributor juxtaposed with the harsh reality of the girl’s carelessly transported body in a grocery wagon highlights the divide between escapism and reality. The simple description of the treatment of her body creates pathos: “In the bottom of the cart lay something long and straight and terrible, covered with a red shawl that drooped over the end of the wagon; and on this thing were piled the baskets in which the grocers had delivered their orders for sugar and flour, and coffee and tea” (194). The body, a surface for empty boxes, now acts no more than an object, a “thing,” of guilt or shame. The repetition of “and” slows the pace of the sentence, highlighting the simple sadness of the scene: the transportation of a dead body.
As a grotesque closing image, the girl’s “rigid feet” (194) that hung over the back of the wagon “nodded to [the] frantic mirth” (194) of the children. The shawl over her feet shifts with the motion of the wagon, yet, transmits an accompanying beat to the crowd’s uncontrolled excitement. The scene illustrates a diversion; the business of living will soon return. The combination of what is imagined and what is real encapsulates the divide between escapism and reality.
Throughout “Scene,” William Dean Howells examines the need for escapism, in its various forms, as an integral part of life. The residents of a small Irish town need a temporary escape from the bleakness and drudgery of their narrow lives. The source of their diversion derives from the grim recovery of a body, the remains of a girl who found her own escape through suicide. Whether her exit from life was prompted by fear, shame, or misery, remains intentionally unclear; the residents, after all, seek to escape reality, intent merely on losing themselves in the growing excitement of the scene. Like the townsfolk, the contributor shuns knowledge of the real details of the girl’s escape in order to create his own diversion, and that of his readership, through his romantic writing. The lack of names for place and character imply that escapism plays a desirous and necessary role in people’s lives. In “Scene,” however, Howells warns his readers of the need for balance: escapism proves necessary at times, but reality remains fact. A girl died, but does it really matter who?
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