I. The Camera’s Eye
Years before meeting my father, my mother had another husband. But because that husband, the first one, amounted to no more than a blip on the radar of my mother’s life (18 months to be precise), and because my mother and father will be celebrating their 44th wedding anniversary this spring, the existence of this mysterious first husband is now of little concern.
There was a time, however, when I was consumed by this information. I was five, and I had suddenly discovered a photo album full of wedding pictures from that short-lived marriage in the back of the coat closet in my childhood home. While photographs of my own parents’ marriage decorated the walls of our living room, the ones from that first marriage had been relegated to the darker recesses of the house. And though I can no longer remember the particulars about how I came to discover in the first place that my mother had been married before (did she tell me before I discovered the photographs, or had I guessed only after looking at the pictures?), I do remember that my mother kindly allowed me to look at the album whenever I liked because she wanted to be open with me and to honor my curiosity.
Which turned out to be abundant. For a few months, I became mildly obsessed with this man, this figure who, had my mother’s life not taken a different path, could have been my father. It both bothered me and fascinated me that a person’s life could be profoundly affected by such a fleeting trifle: a photo album tucked in a dark closet, a ghost-like figure haunting its pages from a time years before I was born.
Though I haven’t seen that photo album in decades, certain details of the pictures remain vivid in my mind. How young the couple looked when saying their vows! How happy as they stuffed cake in each other’s mouths! But the one photo that my memory returns to most often, now that I am long married myself and a parent to my own children, is not of the bride and groom, but of the bride and her father—my grandfather—taken in a hospital room shortly after the wedding. Recovering from an unplanned surgery, my grandfather couldn’t attend the ceremony, but the hospital staff arranged for my mother to visit him between the church ceremony and the party that followed. So, tucked between the flashier professional photographs depicting hazy flowers in a candlelit church (in typical 1970s fashion) and embarrassing shots of the disco dancing that later followed (in even more typical 1970s fashion), were a handful of photographs of a sad little hospital room, tulle drooping forlornly from an IV pole in an unsuccessful attempt by the nurses to cheer up the place. The photographs of the hospital room are an abrupt interruption to the otherwise continuous dream that is the wedding. My grandfather’s expression, captured the moment my mother entered the room as a married woman, is oddly out of place with the rest of the pictures. Beside my mother’s beaming expression framed by her long veil, my grandfather’s face is frozen in grim and sharp relief. The first time I looked through the album as a child, my mother explained that my grandfather had been opposed to the marriage. He wasn’t scowling because he had missed the wedding, but because the wedding had occurred at all. I remember responding to the explanation behind these unhappy pictures by turning the page. I didn’t want to look at my grandfather’s pout. I was more interested in returning to the photographs of the bridesmaid dresses and the wedding cake and the dancing. Oh the dancing!
But even if I had been bothered by my grandfather’s pained expression in those photographs (and I was not), it would have still been too easy for me not to linger on them in my rush to get back to what I perceived to be the more compelling details of the day. If you are to believe the story the rest of the pictures tell, it was an occasion to be celebrated. And yet, those few photographs in the hospital room speak to a different story. A truer story, as it turns out.
This essay examines what I have come to consider the “penultimate space” of Gina Berriault’s “The Stone Boy” and William Trevor’s “Le Visiteur.” In both stories, the “almost ending” functions as an important “interlude” from the established craft techniques used throughout. Like the eye of a passing storm, these interludes bring a necessary interruption, a pause that allows us (not to mention the characters themselves) to have the time needed to process the stories’ crises before facing their conclusions. It is because of these interruptions that our sense of what’s happening in each story deepens and develops, and we begin to become receptive to those conclusions. Like the grimace on my grandfather’s face, that small instance of honesty amidst all the showy artifice of the rest of the day, a story’s interlude can give us a flash of truth that re-ignites narrative momentum and drives the story toward a conclusion all the more inevitable and unexpected for having been touched by such penultimate moments of transcendent truth.
II. Interlude as Closed Eye in “The Stone Boy”
In her craft lecture entitled “The Noticing Eye,” Marisa Silver explains how even the smallest details in short stories function on two levels in a narrative: on one level, the details allow the reader to see the work of the writer’s “noticing eye,” as the descriptions guide us toward that which is important to our understanding of the story at large. But on another level, we are also experiencing the character’s “noticing eye,” and this, Silver points out, is especially helpful as a tool for characterization. After all, it’s not only important for the reader to see what the character is noticing, but to understanding why she is noticing.
In “The Stone Boy,” it’s hard for the reader to not notice the powerful effect of both types of “noticing” eyes. Through detailed description of family and farm life especially, Berriault renders a vividly depicted landscape for the world of the story and clearly conveys the terms of that world. We come to see, through the details of the writer’s noticing eye, how the agrarian life and its corresponding rules dictates the rhythms of the characters’ lives. Similarly, we recognize how those rhythms reflect the complex, coded world that the protagonist, Arnold, struggles to navigate despite, but also because of, his familiarity with it.
In a sense, then, this story is about how the minute details of this world dictate the expected behavior of those within it. But because the characters are expected to be so familiar with the rules of their world, this story is also about the tension between that which is “known” and “unknown” to them. Arnold, the protagonist, suffers because he doesn’t “know” the proper way to behave after his brother is killed. And because of his initial behavior, the rest of the community mistakes him, tragically, for a cruel and unfeeling person. What is “unknown” to the community, that is, the depth of Arnold’s grief, becomes buried under their judgments of him. Eventually Arnold internalizes their mistaken presuppositions of him, and a self-fulfilling prophesy dooms Arnold to becoming a real “stone boy.”
Berriault uses both components of the noticing eye to create and heighten the tension between the known and the unknown throughout the story. But nowhere is that tension so apparent as in the penultimate scene, in which, paradoxically, Arnold’s noticing eye becomes conspicuously closed. And yet, it is only in the absence of what he sees and notices that he experiences a profound shift in what he understands, a shift that, we come to see, facilitates the ending of the story. Though this penultimate section occupies only a fraction of the story, it is disproportionally powerful. Through disruptions to the established use of descriptive language, landscape, and time, Berriault creates an interlude in the penultimate scene in which disorientation replaces the story’s established clarity. And in the disorientation created by the absence of the hyper-realistic world, Arnold can finally come to terms with the tragedy that his actions, and lack of thereof, have precipitated.
In her essay “Almost Impossible” from The Tea Ceremony, Berriault describes Arnold’s reaction to his older brother’s death in “The Stone Boy”: “When the boy accidentally kills his brother, he enters a tragic world, a world not there before, and because that world is almost unbearable at first sight, he slips away for a brief time.” Though here Berriault is talking about a literal, as well as a figurative, “slipping away” when Arnold goes off to pick peas, I believe that the technical shifts in the penultimate space provide another occasion for such an escape. The “slipping away” in the penultimate space is a more subtle and private endeavor than the “slipping away” to the garden; however, its ramifications are ultimately what seals Arnold’s fate. The movements within this space bridge the gap between what the rest of the community presumes to know of Arnold and what Arnold ultimately comes to know of himself.
Because the specific section of the story that I have chosen to focus on occurs so late in the text, it is necessary to first look at how the story functions as a whole. It is impossible to fully appreciate how one section of any story operates without seeing how it operates specifically in relation to the rest of its pieces.
Though “The Stone Boy” opens with a nightmarish premise—a nine-year old boy accidentally shoots and kills his older, much-admired brother—the story is firmly grounded in the waking world from the beginning. Berriault uses detailed language and richly textured landscape to construct a hyper-realistic agrarian society. With its attendant chores and coded rules, we recognize from the start that the farm in this story isn’t just a place, but a system of inter-dependence between the natural world and the community who depends upon it.
The story, which takes place in just 24 hours, is also grounded by Berriault’s use of temporal markers. The sun rises, the tragedy unfolds. The sun sets, and though the tragedy has become lodged in the family’s heart, the sun rises again the next day. Phrases like “the morning growing heavier with the sun” and “the clock with its loudly clucking pendulum” occur frequently, and Berriault uses them to remind readers that though the world feels as if it has ended for Arnold when Eugie dies, the bigger heartbreak of the story is that Arnold understands that it has not ended. The facts of the life he has always known will continue to go on around him: the vegetables will still need to be picked; the cows will still need to be milked. Berriault uses such details to establish the passage of time, but also to illustrate how much Arnold’s understanding of the rhythms of the world around him dictates his behavior. When he goes off to pick peas, we understand that Arnold is indulging in grief the only way he knows how, by deferring it in service to the unyielding demands of time and the natural world.
Berriault also uses Arnold’s relationship to the natural world to reveal his interiority through detailed description of landscape. This is especially evident in the passage when Arnold “slips away” to the garden: “The pods were cold with the night, but his hands were strange to him, and not until some time had passed did he realize that the pods were numbing his fingers. He picked from the top vine first, then lifted the vine to look underneath for pods, and moved on to the next.” In the use of the words “cold,” “numb” and “strange,” Berriault suggests those emotions which Arnold himself is unable to articulate. Even the mechanics of the work itself, the lifting to discover what is hidden underneath, signify feelings that Arnold has attempted to bury. By employing landscape to express what Arnold cannot articulate, Berriault is able to take a menial task and turn it into a revelation about Arnold’s struggle with grief.
Berriault blurs the distinction between physical landscape and emotional terrain in several other instances. Even before Eugie’s death, the details of the natural world create a sense of foreboding: “The sky was faintly gray, almost white. The mountains behind the farm made the sun climb a long way to show itself. Several miles to the south, where the range opened up, hung an orange mist, but the valley in which the farm lay was still cold and colorless.” Not only does the description of the “cold and colorless” valley evoke a sense of dread that foreshadows the accident, but it demonstrates how Berriault aligns her characters with the physical world through detailed language. Because her characters are so attached to the land, she can reveal them to us through it. When we read that the “land had grown bright around him” while Arnold was picking peas, we understand that Berriault is using both time and landscape to suggest that Arnold cannot defer his grief despite his attempt to busy himself with chores. Grief finds him, like the sunlight, even while he is hard at work. Though Arnold might have wished to “slip away” to the garden, it is a futile enterprise.
Without burdening the narrative with too many details, Berriault manages to select those which most fully bring to life Arnold’s world and his evolving place within it. Even inanimate objects, like Arnold’s “raveling gray sweater,” Eugie’s “green knit cap,” and the alarm clock’s “rusty ring,” serve as touchstones for the familiar in Arnold’s world. More than just world-building, these details help to characterize Arnold as a sharp, inquisitive child, constantly reading and registering the world around him. Though the story is written in limited omniscience, with language that occasionally indicates that which is beyond the limits of Arnold’s own experience (such as when “the mountains behind the farm made the sun climb a long way to show itself”), the vast majority of the details in the story describe the world as Arnold specifically experiences it. Berriault uses her noticing eye to reveal what Arnold’s noticing eye is trained upon, and what Arnold’s noticing eye is trained upon reflects his subconscious thoughts of Eugie. For example, when Arnold is taken to the sheriff’s office and notices that the sheriff has “white hair like wheat stubble,” Berriault is purposefully recalling an earlier passage before Eugie’s death in which “Arnold followed Eugie down the slope, stealing, as his brother did, from one shock of wheat to another.” In the repetition of wheat imagery, Berriault is using the details observed by Arnold’s noticing eye to reveal how memories of Eugie are haunting his thoughts, even when he is actively trying to subvert them.
Berriault creates tension by allowing the reader to understand how much Arnold’s seemingly casual thoughts and actions do reflect his grief, even while the community fails to see or appreciate this. To them, Arnold appears unmoved by Eugie’s death. This misunderstanding is compounded by the fact that neither Arnold nor his family discuss Arnold’s seemingly callous behavior. Because their world values deed over word, it is taken for granted that Arnold’s deeds should speak for themselves: “Arnold sat in the front seat of the old Ford between his father, who was driving, and Uncle Andy. No one spoke.” The silence in this passage isn’t just a detail that adds tension to the story – it is the very source of tension.
Because of Arnold’s inability to express himself, when he is finally questioned by the sheriff, then, the reader pins high hopes on the exchange. At last Arnold is made to speak about Eugie. And yet, when he does, he neglects to talk about his grief or give any outward indication of feeling whatsoever. His curt responses both reflect the way he has learned to communicate and create dramatic irony in the story. The reader knows what the others don’t – that in Arnold’s mind, he has reacted the right way. When the sheriff concludes the interview claiming that Arnold is “either a moron or so reasonable he’s way ahead of us,” it is especially powerful because Arnold is being punished for what he perceives as following the rules. In a community where words are not valued, Arnold is held accountable for his very lack of them. Ironically, he isn’t “way ahead” of the men, but rather following in their footsteps.
The crisis of the story, a lengthy public ridicule of Arnold that amounts to something of a verbal stoning, follows this frustrating interrogation with the sheriff. In it, we experience the greatest tension between what is known and unknown about Arnold. Because of the way Berriault uses landscape, time, and detailed language to reveal interiority, the reader is already well aware that Arnold didn’t go off to pick peas because he was unmoved by Eugie’s death, but because he was moved by it, yet Arnold refuses to refute these claims of heartlessness. This simmering scene of public ridicule serves as the crisis because it ultimately contains more dramatic tension than even the shooting itself. It is the culmination of the story’s many misconceptions about Arnold’s reactions to his brother’s death. And because Arnold suffers these accusations without protest, his attempts at acting as he believes he should backfire, and he becomes, paradoxically, more isolated than ever because of these attempts to follow the community’s established behavior:
Arnold sat in the rocker until the last man filed out. While his family was out in the kitchen bidding the callers good night. . . . he picked up one of the kerosene lamps and slipped quickly up the stairs. . . . He felt nothing, not any grief. There was only the same immense silence and crawling inside of him, the way the house and fields must feel under a merciless sun.
This last passage of the crisis highlights how Arnold has begun to misunderstand himself as a result of the misunderstanding of others. He is aware that there is a code within his community, yet he clearly struggles to understand the nuances behind that code. Because of this struggle, he comes to believe, erroneously, that he is as heartless as the others think him to be. He doesn’t recognize that the “immense silence and crawling inside of him” is not “nothing.” It is grief, revealed through the language of landscape, though because he lacks the emotional outlet to express it himself, he ultimately fails to recognize it as such.
By the time we enter into the penultimate section that follows, our understanding of both the character and the character’s coded world has been firmly cemented by Berriault’s technical choices. Through Berriault’s noticing eye, we understand the terms of the story’s world and Arnold’s tragic, misunderstood place within it. So, it comes as a surprise, when we move into the penultimate section, to see that the noticing eye ceases to function in the same way it had. By presenting the reader with a sudden, unprecedented break from the established use of detail in the story, Berriault disorients us and in doing so, forces a deeper engagement with the material that precedes and follows it. By subverting our expectations of the story’s texture, Berriault presents this section as an “interlude” in the truest sense: it is a pause in the story and a pause in the way the story is told. Between the crisis and the conclusion, we are forced by this pause to linger in the anomalous moment.
In her discussion of “slow motion” in her book Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway describes how a writer can modulate intensity by slowing down time: “When people experience moments of great intensity, their senses become especially alert and they register, literally, more than usual.” This intensity, she continues, can be created “using detail with special focus and precision.” But in considering this quote in the context of the penultimate scene of “The Stone Boy,” a curious inversion becomes apparent—the same intense effect of precise detail that Burroway describes occurs within the interlude of “The Stone Boy,” through the very absence of detail. In the penultimate space, Berriault moves us out of the detailed, hyper-realistic world we have come to expect and into a newly spare, dream-like space, in which Arnold does “register . . . more than usual.”
This penultimate scene begins as a mirror to the beginning of the story with Arnold, once again, waking up, though it doesn’t take long before the reader senses that something has changed this time. Gone are the markers of the previous day. There’s no familiar “raveling gray sweater,” no “narrow twin bed,” no “rusty ring” of the alarm clock that we had to ground us in the first scene. Those details, now that we’ve experienced the loss that Arnold has suffered, are the very things that the reader looks for to reassure herself in the face of tragedy in the story, but they, like Eugie himself, are conspicuously absent. Before the interlude, Berriault uses detail to blur the line between landscape and the character’s emotional terrain; in the penultimate space, she allows for the loss of texture to demonstrate the loss Arnold has experienced. When the full weight of that loss hits Arnold in the middle of the night in the interlude, it is as if all the vibrancy of his world has disappeared.
While the first paragraph of the story describes Arnold waking up in his room by employing no less than 10 adjectives over four sentences (“raveling,” “gray,” “naked,” “other,” “narrow,” “rusty,” “peculiar,” “waking,” “uneasy,” “sleeping”), during the penultimate scene, only two adjectives mark this revisitation to the same bedroom. Of the adjectives that do appear, neither describe what Arnold can actually see from his vantage point in bed: “The sound that waked him was the step of his father as he got up from the rocker and went down the back steps, and he knew that his father was out in the yard, closing the doors of the chicken houses. . .” The “back” steps and the “chicken” houses are representations of what Arnold is presuming his father to be doing and not his actual sensory experience. The first waking sequence sets the tone for the rest of the story in drawing the noticing eye to Arnold’s sensory experience of the world and his subsequent understanding of it; the second waking sequence is curiously devoid of such sensory experiences. Arnold’s noticing eye has ceased to function the same way in the interlude. This change is compounded by the fact that the interlude begins so abruptly. In the first section, we are eased into Arnold’s waking day through the sensory, essentially “waking” us up to the story along with Arnold, yet this second section commands our attention with all the inelegance of a shotgun blast. “He awoke suddenly,” the passage simply, unceremoniously, begins. This is especially noteworthy given the attention that details are given in the passages that precede this section. The reader is suddenly, abruptly disoriented, just as Arnold is.
This is also the first and only section in the story in which we are given no indication of time. Before the interlude, Berriault was careful to always give the reader a sense of the time of day. Indeed, this is one of the ways that she tracks Arnold’s attempt to defer his grief with chores and responsibility. Before the interlude, there are many direct and indirect temporal markers: “[i]t was cold in the kitchen so early,” “[t]he sky was faintly gray, almost white,” and “[t]he men were coming from their farms now that it was growing dark and they could not work anymore.” Even when we are not given the exact time, Berriault gives the reader an idea of approximate time, especially as it relates to farm work. We understand that the peas need to be picked before the sun comes up, that the condolence visits must wait until after the chores are done. And yet, in this passage, we suddenly find ourselves outside of such indicators. Berriault doesn’t tell the reader how long Arnold has been sleeping, or even if it is late or early when he wakes up a second time. The temporal clues that have marked the rest of the passage are conspicuously absent too.
In addition to placing Arnold outside of time, it is noteworthy that Berriault also isolates Arnold physically in this passage. Though Arnold has been grappling privately with his grief all along, he has always had either a community member or the farm itself to distract him from addressing his grief. Even in the scene when Arnold attempts to run off and be alone, his escape doesn’t serve so much as an escape from but an escape to. He disappears into the barn, but in doing so, his thoughts are diverted from Eugie to the concrete details of the farm: “He could feel the morning growing heavier with sun. Someone, probably Nora, had let the chickens out of their coop and they were cackling in the yard.” Up until the interlude, Arnold has been able to use landscape as a diversion. His noticing eye has always provided something that he could seize upon to purposely keep his mind off of what he cannot bear to think about.
Yet, in the penultimate passage, Arnold is at last cut off from both the natural world and the rest of his family. Alone in his room, there are no chickens to listen to, no peas to pick, no neighbors or relatives in front of whom he must pretend to be stoic. Arnold becomes literally “penned in” with his solitude for the first time. Even though the scene takes place in the house, we realize that the house is, paradoxically, not Arnold’s truest home. We understand because of the emotional energy that Berriault has invested in landscape that Arnold is more fully in his element when he is interacting with the natural world. We wonder what Arnold is to do now that he finds himself with nothing to do. The effect of this passage is disorienting not only because of the sudden, deliberate lack of detail, but also because of the specific brand of isolation that such a lack of detail creates.
It is not surprising that in a scene that mirrors the opening of the story, Berriault also has Arnold once again leaving his room and following the same path that he took on the morning of the accident. This time, however, we read this trip out of his room as an attempt to flee his isolation. Though the choreography is the same—Arnold exits his room and walks down the stairs and through the dark parlor in both scenes—the world in which he moves has changed. This is due not only to Eugie’s death, but to a lack of the grounding details formerly supplied by his noticing eye. Without these details, a spare, dream-like atmosphere begins to emerge.
This dreamy atmosphere is further enhanced by the addition of a more pronounced omniscience for Arnold. As the penultimate scene begins, we are told that Arnold “knows” things that he cannot possibly know from the vantage point of his bedroom. He knows that the sound that “waked him was the step of his father as he got up from the rocker and went out the back steps. . .” Though we could, arguably, give Arnold the benefit of the doubt about this assumption, as the sentence continues, the things that Arnold “knows” appear less and less probable: “. . . and he knew that his father was out in the yard, closing the doors of the chicken houses, and he knew that his mother was awake in their bed.” It is unlikely that Arnold would know his father’s precise location without a sense of time or any similarly telling sensory clues, but it is certainly impossible that Arnold would “know” that his mother is awake downstairs in her bedroom. He can’t see through walls. And yet, Berriault insists that Arnold doesn’t merely guess at this information but that he “knows” it.
In the pointed repetition of “know,” Berriault calls our attention to a change in the access that Arnold has to the rest of his world. Before the interlude, Arnold relies on what he could hear or see—the chickens cackling in the yard or the sun warming his back. But in the interlude, he “knows” things with no such aids. This insistence of “knowing” suggests a sudden, preternatural knowledge that was unavailable to him during waking hours and denotes a change in Arnold.
The otherworldly atmosphere continues as Arnold moves through the house. When Arnold steals down the stairs and knocks on his mother’s door, for example, we are told that her voice is both “seeking and retreating,” a pair of adjectives that, under normal circumstances, would contradict each other. But in every craft choice here, Berriault seems to be reminding readers that these are not normal circumstances. Because of the atmosphere evoked by Arnold’s increased omniscience, his timeless isolation, and the lack of detail that has heretofore marked the story, we understand that a voice can contain such contradictions in the interlude. We are now in a new reality. And in this new reality, Arnold, stripped of the very “reasonableness” that he has been accused of, can finally allow himself access to the emotional realm that he had been avoiding.
The penultimate scene demonstrates such access to the emotional primarily through his attempt to seek out his mother: “He had come to clasp her in his arms and pommel her breasts with his head, grieving with her for Eugene.” In the darkness, Arnold allows himself to believe that it is possible to start over, to go back in time and tell his mother all that he has been longing to express. Outside of the parameters of time, Arnold attempts to become time’s master:
He had expected her to realize that he wanted to go down on his knees by her bed and tell her that Eugie was dead. She did not know it yet, nobody knew it, and yet she was sitting up in bed, waiting to be told. He had expected her to tell him to come in and allow him to dig his head into her blankets and tell her about the terror he had felt when he had knelt beside his brother.
Here, we see repetition of the word “expect,” which, like the word “know,” conveys a degree of supposition on Arnold’s part. Arnold “expects” his mother to act a certain way because he believes he “knows” her well enough to predict her responses. Berriault’s persistent repetition of such words that convey Arnold’s confidence in what he presumes to understand only works to show us how much he doesn’t actually understand, and how these expectations are doomed to never be met. Additionally, by using the past present tense of “expect” Berriault asserts that any opportunity for these expectations to be fulfilled has already passed Arnold by.
Earlier in the story, we are told with confidence that the cold kitchen would soon be “almost unbearable” from the heat coming off the woodstove as his mother cans peas, an assumption Arnold makes based on his knowledge of his mother’s routine. Similarly, we are told that Arnold knows the “strange men” who arrive at the farm while he is hidden in the barn are the sheriff and the undertaker. Arnold surmises this because he believes his father “must have phoned (them) from Uncle Andy’s house.” Such details reveal Arnold’s familiarity with his world. It is a world whose rhythms and actions he knows and understands. When peas are picked, they get canned; when someone dies, the undertaker comes. He doesn’t need to see these things to know that they will happen. And yet, during the interlude, Arnold doesn’t have the benefit of relying on such comfortable familiarity. In the penultimate space, what Arnold presumes to “know” or “expect” isn’t based on sensory experience or familiar routine. Rather, it is based on his desperate desire to regain a sense of control in a newly uncontrollable, unknowable world, the “world not there before” that Berriault describes in The Tea Ceremony. And it is a desire doomed to be thwarted.
Before the interlude, Berriault uses detail to illustrate the way Arnold’s family relies on gesture as their primary way to communicate. When Arnold first tells his mother with words that Eugie has died, she doesn’t believe him: “She wanted, Arnold knew, to see his eyes, and when he glanced at her she put the bowl and spoon down on the stove and walked past him. His father stood up and went out the door after her.” In this example, we see Arnold intuiting, through his mother’s facial expression that she “wanted . . . to see his eye,” and we see his parents intuiting the truth of Arnold’s words through his eyes. Non-verbal communication here is more effective.
In the penultimate scene, however, Arnold is suddenly without a means to communicate non-verbally. Not only have the details of the familiar world that he relies upon disappeared, but so have his chances for interpersonal contact. When Arnold knocks on his mother’s door and his mother turns him away, it is especially significant that Arnold is barred from seeing her face. He is robbed of both the solace of her company, and the ability to communicate through gesture. In a family in which so much is conveyed through the eyes, a closed door is tantamount to an inability to speak. Arnold may be ready to reveal his grief but his mother isn’t able to receive it.
Finally, in the absence of the story’s previously rich texture, Berriault creates a space where, at last, Arnold can act his age. While during the rest of the day, Arnold has tried to remain stoic and manly, in the interlude, he attempts to drop this pretense and act like the child he is through seeking out the comfort of his mother. When she refuses to open the door, and, even worse, mocks him for his need for comfort, Arnold’s rejection is doubly profound:
“Go back to bed, Arnold,” she called sharply.
But he waited.
“Go back! Is night when you get afraid?”
At first, he did not understand. Then, silently, he left the door and for a moment stood by the rocker.
At the exact moment that he is most willing to acknowledge his vulnerability, he is belittled for it. And yet, this vulnerability is only accessible to Arnold because of the changes introduced by the interlude. Additionally, in making Arnold literally naked in this section, Berriault is highlighting a profound shift in him. By stripping away his clothing, Berriault is illustrating Arnold’s desire to revert back to the childish innocence he had at the beginning of the story. In seeking out his mother, Arnold attempts to bridge the world of men that he longed to be a part of and the world of children that he has now discovered he is not yet ready to give up. But the tragedy of the story hinges on the fact he cannot bridge these two worlds. His attempts to act the man during the day, albeit clumsy and misguided, have prevented him from becoming a recipient of his mother’s comfort in these moments of physical and emotional nakedness. Even though throughout the story, he has been accused of being cruel and heartless, when he tries to shed that unfair assignation outside of the realm of the waking world, he finds himself trapped in it.
Arnold’s exterior life changes irrevocably the moment Eugie dies, but his interior life changes the moment his mother rejects him in the interlude. The penultimate scene ends with Arnold abandoning his attempt at communion and retreating in isolation and shame to his bedroom: “Arnold was aware suddenly that he was naked . . . she had refused to listen to him and his nakedness had become unpardonable.” The sudden recognition of this “unpardonable” nakedness marks a final shift in the interlude as Arnold understands that his innocence cannot be regained. When he emerges the next day from the interlude, he is irreversibly, tragically, transformed because of it. The closed eye of the interlude has provided the space within the story for Arnold to change from boy to man.
Just as we cannot consider the penultimate scene in the story without considering what came before it, it is impossible to read the conclusion of “The Stone Boy” without understanding the importance of the interlude. In it, we enter into a deeper understanding of the story precisely because of the way the interruptions of established technical strategies throw our perceptions of the rest of the story into relief.
If the penultimate scene in the story departs from the previous texture, the final scene is a return to that texture, though the effect is received differently by readers this time. As the concluding scene begins, Berriault returns to temporal markers. We are told, for example, that the family is sharing breakfast and that sometime during the night, the family cow had gone off to calf. Arnold also gives consideration to time when he thinks about how many hours it would take to assume Eugie’s job of leading the cow and calf back down to the barn.
In small details like these, we see that the sparse, isolating ether of the previous night’s experience has been erased and replaced once again by hyper-realistic details. We are told what the family is eating (“fried eggs and potatoes), what the pitcher is made out of (“metal”) and how Nora’s head hangs when her father reprimands her (“unsurely”). These types of specific details serve to remind the reader that with the dawning of a new day, life appears to have resumed as concretely as it was before.
And yet, despite the return of descriptive language and temporal markers, the final scene still begins with an acknowledgement of how the previous night has affected Arnold: “At breakfast he kept his eyelids lowered to deny the night.” This detail is especially important because, before we settle into the rhythms of domestic life, Berriault gives a nod to the otherworldly experience of the penultimate scene. Arnold’s attempt to “deny the night,” suggests his wish to hide the shame that the interlude brought. The night and his nakedness, literal and figurative, must not be spoken of. Indeed, the family proceeds to eat breakfast, not only as if nothing had happened the night before, but as if Eugie were still alive. Except for Nora, the rest of Arnold’s family appears to have woken up ready to move on from the tragedy—no one speaks of Eugie again for the rest of the story.
This obvious omission presents a curious reversal in the concluding scene. Because of the emotional reaction of the family and the community the day before, we do not expect the family to move on or to forgive Arnold so readily, especially after Arnold’s rejection by his mother. And yet, when Arnold’s father makes the gesture of passing Arnold the milk pitcher, there is a subtextual forgiveness that Arnold recognizes: “Arnold, pretending to be deaf to the discord, did not glance up, but relief rained over his shoulders at the thought that his parents recognized him again. They must have lain awake after his father had come in from the yard: had they realized together why he had come down the stairs and knocked at their door?” Here Berriault revisits the concept of how much Arnold understands through body language. He recognizes his father’s attempt to welcome him back in the familial fold, despite the avoidance of the topic of Eugie, and he presumes that his parents have figured out that he is not heartless. It is an unexpected but welcome movement in the story, as readers have been longing, with Arnold, for such forgiveness and recognition.
However, Berriault does not end the story on that uplifting note. If the story had ended with his father’s sudden reversal and Arnold’s easy forgiveness, then Arnold’s transformation would remain incomplete. In constructing the penultimate scene as a purposeful and disorienting interruption, Berriault has avoided an easy ending. What Arnold now “knows” about himself, cannot be unknown. During the night, he has crossed a threshold from childhood to manhood. The child he was might have accepted such gestures of forgiveness unquestioningly, but the man he has become resists his parents’ overtures. Arnold might have been content to receive the comfort of his parents’ recognition before the transformative night, but now he rejects the same recognition he had been seeking earlier in the story. Before the interlude, he had been “afraid that they did not want to eat supper with him,” but now Arnold is the one to get up and leave during the meal. When his mother asks him where he is going we are told that he pauses “reluctantly, his back to her, knowing that she was seeking him out, as his father was.” The lasting effects of the interlude, the night that Arnold cannot “deny,” are evident in the way that Arnold moves from the one seeking his parents, to the one being sought by his parents.
In a similar reversal, in the final turn of the story when Arnold’s mother tries to make up for her own cruelty, Arnold is the one who rejects, turning away the opportunity to verbalize his grief:
At the door he paused reluctantly, his back to her, knowing that she was seeking him out, as his father was doing.
“Was you knocking at my door last night?”
He looked over his shoulder at her, his eyes narrow.
“What’d you want?” she asked humbly.
“I didn’t want nothing,” he said flatly.
Note the language that Berriault uses to describe Arnold and his mother in this passage. The adverbs “humbly” and “flatly” reveal a reversal of the power dynamic in the relationship between mother and son, a reversal earned by the penultimate scene. By using craft to strip Arnold of the trappings of his world and grant him true vulnerability and subsequent rejection, Berriault has allowed for this profound change in Arnold. Now that he is offered the very chance he so desired yesterday, he no longer wants it. This transformation turns Arnold into the “stone boy” of the title. All his attempts at toughness before this concluding scene were play-acting. But the experience of the penultimate scene has precipitated a real and lasting change. Berriault focuses on the details of Arnold’s body language to punctuate this new maturity. Arnold’s “narrow” eyes recall two other occasions in the story where older male figures have used their eyes to express ridicule this way. Eugie makes a similar motion when making fun of Arnold’s size: “Eugie lowered his eyelids, leaving slits of mocking blue. ‘You’d drown ‘fore you got to it, them legs of yours are so puny.’” Similarly, when Uncle Andy is purposefully punishing Arnold with silence in the car, we are told that “his eyes narrowed” as he “sat tall and still beside Arnold.” By recalling these earlier expressions in this final interaction between Arnold and his mother, Berriault is giving one last piece of evidence to support the chilling final line: “I didn’t want nothing.” Only because of the transformative experience of the interlude, when Arnold finally receives the burden of maturity that he has sought, does this lie turn out to be a terrible truth.