Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

11 Mar 2011

(Short Story) The Quilt Maker by: Angela Carter

(Reaction) Many Stitches in Time by: Antonio Conejos

View other reactions on works by Carter.

We have colonized time, found its measure and demarcated its boundaries into units we bandy about like just another tradeable good; I'll meet you at half past the hour, be sure to come up at 6:00PM precisely. The regularity of the clock provides us with reassurance, the illusion that just as there was an 11:00am today, so there will be an 11:00am tomorrow.

If the seasons pass then what of it, they will come again next year and the year after that; A small, moist, green wind blew the petals of the scattering cherry blossoms... 'The blossoms always fall,' he said. 'Next year they'll come again,' I said comfortably. A tree which smiles today, tomorrow will be dying but will once again be smiling next season, Next-door's cherry is coming out again. In fact, it has not one but two tricks up its arboreal sleeve; each trick involves three sets of transformations and these it performs regularly as clockwork each year.

This belief in the abundance of life takes early root in the Quilt Maker, I hope you understand, therefore, how, by the time two more decades had rolled away, it was perfectly natural for me to take the little peach; had I not always been loved enough to feel I had some to spare?

Yet as she becomes older, she begins to realize (quite naturally) that sometimes there is nothing forthcoming except the little (unsatisfying) peach. Thus she leaves her husband, he was, in a manner of speaking, always the little peach to me. A subsequent man (who notes in an allusion and reversal of Madame Butterfly that she will leave him, Me Butterfly, you Pinkerton) further points out the folly of trusting the illusion that time goes on for us. 'The blossoms always fall,' he said. 'Next year, they'll come again,' I said comfortably... 'What's that to me?' he said.

Certainly time and the seasons, the natural world, goes on; in fact they go on just fine without us. One needs to choose then what to make of time, of the moments bracketed between the chimes of a clock.

Thus, Angela Carter's Quilt Maker strives to stitch a coherent personal narrative amidst the precisely measured fall of minutes and hours, seasons and years. While she makes use of time, patience is a great quality in the maker of patchwork, the idiosyncrasy of choice is her best tool, With all patchwork, you must start in the middle and work outward... feather-stitching together arbitrary shapes scissored out at the maker's whim.

As such, the Quilt Maker is a mediation on gathering the events of a life. For while time marches on, we do not. The short story, just like the mishmash of a quilt, is a collection of scattered events in time brought together to form a coherent whole.

At one point, the narrator attempts to peg a rough halfway point on her life; Along the lifeline I am now past the halfway mark. The introduction of the halfway mark allows the Quilt Maker to consider symmetry, how life reverts on itself so that the characteristics of old age are the characteristics of youth. The Quilt Maker observes that when asked of her age, Letty proudly replies, 80. See how, with age, one defines oneself by age, as one did in childhood.

Letty too forms part of the symmetry as a prelude of how the Quilt Maker will age. It is no accident that the Quilt Maker calls Letty her, ma semblable, ma soeur; literally my alike, my sister. While old though, Letty is still spry, an octogenarian redhead, my big babushka who contains my forty, my thirty, my twenty, my ten years within her fragile basket of bones.

Letty's vibrant hair is thanks to henna, a substance which carries a special fascination for the Quilt Maker, However did they first think of it? Henna continues the symmetry of time and age as it allows the appearance of youth even in old age. The plant itself, before it is used as a cosmetic, must in a certain sense age as well, be reduced to a scum-green-coloured powder. Yet this "old" looking substance is the key to youthful locks, This henna paste is no longer greyish, but now a vivid dark green, as if the hot water had revived the real colour of the living leaf. As such, ironically henna must first age before it can bring youth.

Just as the Quilt Maker observes symmetries of age in Letty, she also observes the symmetry of life in her Japanese lover. If the English refer to sexual climax as coming, for the Japanese it is to go. 'Ikimasu,' to go. The Japanese orgasmic departure renders the English orgasmic arrival, as if the event were reflected in the mirror and the significance of it altogether different. We are leaving (going) while some are coming, but sometimes it can be a pleasure for both.

Ultimately, even the illusion of the regularity of clockwork slips away, We know when we were born but - the times of our reprieves are equally random. All that we have then are the times we consciously choose to remember, the colorful scraps of oriental brocade and Turkish homespun I have sewn into this bedcover... this useful domestic article, this product of thrift and imagination. It is this melange of events that we shield ourselves with in old age against the, rocks and trees of the patient wilderness waiting around us.

Time goes on but we do not. We do have the ability though to infinitely progress and regress through the finite time given us (like those Russian wooden dolls, in which big babushka contains a middling babushka... and so on ad infinitum). From the impressions of unceasing seasons around us, we are able to choose what to make of our life.

To match our crazy patchwork of experiences against the steady, stately progression of years and seasons; against the cherry blossoms that will be here next year when we will not.


This isn't a traditional short story in the sense that there is a clear narrative structure. Is the short story about the Quilt Maker's experiences or her creation of a metaphorical quilt? Is the narrative about Letty considering that the old woman introduces much of the causality of the short story?

The Quilt Maker is more of an example of the short story as a meditation; in this case, on how we sum up our lives against time. It is a series of impressions stitched together more by theme than by plot.

Short stories (or any stories for that matter) though need not fall into anyone's definition to be beautiful. And the Quilt Maker is certainly that, at least for me. I enjoyed very much the story's meanderings as well as its tone. And of course, the language of Angela Carter never disappoints.

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