The four Rhoda Manning stories in Ellen Gilchrist’s first collection, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981), provide a perfect example of Ellen Gilchrist’s art: her laconic and pellucid prose, her indelible and oftentimes heavily ironized characters, her mastery of the social and physical geography of rural American towns, especially in the South. But it is the portrait of Rhoda herself that is most striking. Though the four stories are not arranged consecutively or chronologically, Gilchrist nonetheless creates one of the great female characters in American fi ction: Self-centered, manipulative, narcissistic, she is a sort of omni–femme fatale who infuriates nearly every character she has contact with (and perhaps many readers). Yet at the same time, Gilchrist complicates the portrait by subtly introducing elements that place Rhoda’s behavior in a wider feminist context. It is this careful and artful character shading, this awareness of massive social forces that impact women as a whole, that gives these stories their memorability and heft.
This complicated portrait is seen in the story “Revenge.” Rhoda, at 10 years old during World War II, is given to tantrums whenever she does not get her way and wishes painful death on her male cousins for excluding her from their games. Yet indirect understanding if not sympathy trickles through this portrait of a girl who seems, on the surface, to be nothing but a selfish (and racist) brat. For example, the “revenge” she exacts on her male cousins—just like that of an older female cousin who is introduced later in the story—is conditioned and constricted by female stereotyping: Rhoda is discouraged from playing athletic games because, she is told by all the women in the family, muscles are “ugly” on girls (119) and forever prevent them from achieving the ultimate goal, marriage. She is therefore forced to get back at her cousins by “girlish” means, in this case shining in a new dress while being, significantly, the maid of honor at a wedding ceremony. Driving home with the new dress, she dreams of her triumph and revenge over the boys: “Wait till they see me like this, I was thinking. Wait till they see what I really look like” (121). The boys gain honor by sweaty, muscly achievement; girls, by slender, ornamented looks. This point is further illustrated by the female cousin who joined the WAVES “to avenge [her husband’s] death” while training as a war pilot, but despite the photo of her leaning on a navy destroyer, she spends the war “in Pensacola, Florida, being secretary to an admiral” (117).
Such character complications are at the heart of the brutal and typically ironic story “1957, a Romance.” A decade later, Rhoda has won her man and the results are perhaps predictable: At 19, she is pregnant for the third time and separated from her husband, whom she accuses of spouse raping her without contraception in order to keep her trapped in the marriage. Again Rhoda’s deceptions, manipulations, and narcissism—capped by the final scene of her finding happiness, on the day of her illegal and dehumanizing abortion, by admiring how beautiful and slender she looks in a new black swimsuit (95)—are clearly contextualized by her condition as a woman. Forced to be obsessed about her looks (and how new clothes highlight those looks), forced to bear the entire burden of childbearing and child raising, her vanity and egocentric behavior are clearly meant to be understood as having a deeper source than some individual character flaw. As with the younger Rhoda and her cousin in “Revenge,” Rhoda’s behavior in this story is conditioned, as one critic puts it, by “the perpetual influence of the patriarchy” (Bauer 33).
In addition to the other Rhoda stories in the collection—the brief “1944” and “Perils of the Nile,” which shows Rhoda at about age 13 panicked and driven to extravagant religious prayer over a lost pearl ring— two other stories have very Rhoda-like protagonists and themes. In “Generous Pieces,” the character Margaret, who lives in the same Indiana town and on the same street as Rhoda, also is obsessed about her and other people’s looks, witnesses sexual games of control (the females are “generous pieces” for the males), and in these early years of puberty is terrified by the world for reasons she cannot wholly understand. The superb story “Traveler” reads like a sequel to “Generous Pieces” and again could easily be categorized as a Rhoda story despite the protagonist’s altered name (LeLe Arnold). As is Rhoda (and Margaret), LeLe is plump and red-haired, spoiled, egocentric, and mendacious; she and her Mississippi cousin are fascinated by the “impenetrable mystery of physical beauty” (143) and the endless boys who come a-courting, LeLe to the point of risking her own death in order to impress one boy with her (invented) swimming skills. Having made the big swim, and driving home with the handsome, broad-shouldered boy’s arm around her shoulder, LeLe is ecstatic over her triumph and vindication; the careful reader, though, is clearly meant to see her actions as a further and unconscious cementing of her spiritual debasement.
Gilchrist returned to Rhoda in later collections, gathering them all (through 1995) in Rhoda: A Life in Stories. Brad Hooper argues that the Rhoda stories (along with those about Nora Jane, another recurring Gilchrist character) represent Gilchrist’s “greatest achievement, her most resonant work” (148). And it is in her first appearance in this first collection of stories—as well as the stories about the very similar characters Margaret and LeLe—that Gilchrist is at her top form, writing with painful and polished honesty about the travels and travails of these doomed young women.
Bauer, Margaret D. The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.
Gilchrist, Ellen. In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. 1981. Hooper, Brad. The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005.