Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

08 July 2011

(Short Story) What that Kind of Mush Gets You by: Sinclair Lewis

(Reaction) Love is not all (With props to Edna St. Vincent Millay) by: Antonio Conejos

As anyone who has fallen into that kind of mush can tell you, love is a mess of contradictions. This is humorously and painfully (there, our first contradiction) depicted in Sinclair Lewis's short story.

Love can make us courageous enough to die with one's lover. Death is the only solution Allan can see where he can be with Virga. The end of physical life to them is literally the beginning of their life together. Not once is it mentioned in the story that either had doubts or reservations about their plan to commit suicide together. This resolve is illustrated in Allan's question, You're still game for it?, and Virga's reply, With you? For anything. Fittingly then, Virga's last lines of the story are, Together now. Together.

In a way, Allan and Virga are even more courageous than another famed couple from literature, Romeo and Juliet. The former planned from the beginning to die together, unlike the star crossed couple who initially merely used death as a ruse. Of course the latter are far more resolute when it is seems that death is the only answer. In contrast, Allan and Virga can never shake off their timid air and take their lives when their scheme is found out.

While Allan and Virga are so brave as to happily commit suicide together, they ironically cannot summon the courage to face their respective spouses. Their spouses are the only thing standing in the way of their happiness, and these spouses terrify them, They were afraid of Mr. Vay and of Allan's fat and vicious wife, Bertha, and they met at soda counters in outlying drug stores.

This is a startling contradiction. On one hand Allan and Virga are certainly brave, fearless enough to die together. Yet at the same time they are cowards, unwilling or unable to end their relationships with their respective spouses.

An illicit affair certainly involves a good deal of sneaking around. This lays bare another of love's contradictions. Love is only seen when it is hidden. Allan and Virga escape to an anonymous hotel. Yet despite their subterfuge it only takes a few moments for an anonymous bellboy (who knew nothing about them) to realize that they are in love, The bellyboy knew from her indifference and from her calling the man 'husband' that she was not married to him, but unstintingly in love.

Similarly, Allan's love for Virga is only brought to light when Bertha unravels his suicide scheme and tracks him down to Indian Mounds Park. If not for the couple's decision to secretly unite in death, it would have been unlikely that Bertha would ever have been able to confirm Allan's infidelity.

Amidst these contradictions of love the short story seems to imply that love is deserving of punishment. These are the sentiments of the loathsome Bertha who has the story's last line, Love! Ally is learning what that kind of mush gets you. Bertha is a repulsive creature, violent and overbearing, without an ounce of human goodwill in her. She did not suggest to her husband but told him that they would move out'.

A running theme with her is her disdain for her husband's sexual abilities. Mrs. Cedar was a rare type of the vicious woman; she really hated her husband' She jeered' that as a lover, 'Ally' had no staying-powers. That's what she thought. Concocting a story for her friends she explains the suicide to them, Ally tried to - you know - with a woman, but he was no good, and he was so ashamed he tried to kill himself.

Bertha's comments on Allan represent another contradiction. Allan is clearly a man in love yet he is described as incapable of making love. There is a contradiction between the internal state of the character and its outward expression. This is a common enough phenomenon with lovers, bursting with love yet unable to do anything about it. (To be fair to Allan though, it's difficult to conceive of a man who would be motivated to make love to Bertha.)

In sum there are three main contradictions concerning love in What that Kind of Mush Gets You. One, love makes one courageous yet at the same time cowardly. Two, love is seen only when it is kept a secret or clandestinely pursued. Three, one can be bursting with love but be unable to express it.

What that kind of mush, love, certainly gets you is a big mess. Is love worth it then? Is it, as Bertha disdainfully pronounces, worthy of punishment?

Just as Allan's scheme is about to succeed and he is about to die with his beloved, he quotes verses from the poem Sea Holly by Conrad Aiken. In particular, he manages to read out the last lines, Stone pain in the stony heart,/The rock loved and labored; and all is lost. Sea Holly implies that love is painful, the gnashing of rock against rock. But ultimately that this pain dissolves, is battered, into a simple happiness, On the seaward path, seeing the fruitful sea,/Hearing the lark of rock that sings, smelling/The rock-flower of hawthorn, sweetness of rock - .

The allusion to Sea Holly does not mean that the short story ends happily. After all Allan is nursing a broken jaw and is in the literal clutches of his foul wife. His love has tried, and failed, to contact him. Yet the inclusion of the poem hints that love's final contradiction is that love's pain can lead to it's joy.

Review:

This could have been a heavy story, with a somewhat oppressive theme. Lewis though keeps the tone light, even jovial. Thus it comes of as an amusing read. Bertha for me was ironically the most fleshed out (pun intended) character. She comes alive with her hate more than the lovers do with their sweet nothings.

The reader feels for Allan's sorry state. One almost wishes to egg him on to leave his wife but it is clear that this is not to be. He is an irresolute man, crushed by Bertha's weight.

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