A wide variety of interpretations have greeted John Steinbeck’s “The White Quail” since its publication in The Long Valley in 1942. Some critics have used it as basic evidence of Steinbeck’s misogyny, believing that his portrait of Mary Teller is clearly designed to criticize her controlling, manipulating traits as well as her determination to create a false “ideal” world in the midst of a real one. Still others see Mary as a strong woman, struggling to exist in a world where male and female roles are stringently assigned.
Since the events portrayed are rather static, however, and since the characters appear as mere archetypes of opposing forces or ideas, most critics have agreed that the plotline and characters are not the strengths of the story. Told in six episodes, the story revolves around the goal of Mary Teller to wall out the natural environs and to replace them with a structured and artificial garden of her own creation. Choosing her husband, Harry Teller, on the basis of his compatibility with such a structured living area, Mary appears to exclude personal emotions so she can attain her goal. Depicted with an almost manic obsession for control, Mary clearly contrasts with Harry, her chosen mate. He is relatively unconcerned and uninvolved with her planning, while the garden occupies Mary’s every waking hour. He is aroused sexually by her appearance, while she appears revolted by sex and often relegates him to a separate bedroom. Her insistent attitude and her determination to be a dominant force in the marriage also contrast with his passivity. This negative portrayal of the female has troubled feminist critics and led others to search for biographical parallels in Steinbeck’s disintegrating relationship with his first wife, Carol Henning.
As evidence of the complexity of this second tale of The Long Valley, other analyses have been developed to understand this story of marital unhappiness. Since the story contains so many clearly defined natural symbols (the garden as a renewed Eden, the outside world of the surrounding hills as an intruding evil), some critics have noted biblical overtones. The white quail, a symbol for Mary as well as for purity and idealism, is a cipher in the complex world of reality. Conversely, the gray cat that stalks the quail, as predator, is identified with Harry Teller as an enemy of an unfallen Eden in the midst of a fallen world. The biblical tension of the original Adam and Eve story develops once more in this perfect garden as male and female, depicted as polar opposites, each seek different ends.
Harry’s materialistic goals seem unnatural and “unfair” to his wife, while Mary’s “natural” goals appear odd, strange, and contrived to Harry. The difference depends on the perspective of the observer as Steinbeck applies his objective approach to the characters. Neither Harry nor Mary is assigned primary blame; instead, their singular selfishness and lack of concern for each other cause grief to both. Mary’s association of the quail with “the very center of her, her heart” and Harry’s eventual destruction of the quail emphasize a pervasive loneliness in human sexual relationships despite the sex act’s effect of joining two into one.
The critic Robert S. Hughes has delineated fear of change and an inability to cope with loneliness as the two major themes of this “lyric” short story. Citing Steinbeck’s Long Valley Notebook, he suggests events in Steinbeck’s life during 1933 that might have made such a tale an appropriate reaction to his own existence. Certainly Mary’s fear of change is indicated in her intent to replace any dying bush or plant with one exactly like it, and the isolation of both characters, especially Harry, depicts the guilt and sadness that accompany the elevation of self at the expense of others. An unwillingness to foster brotherhood through mutual understanding is a key to understanding Steinbeck’s message in this story.
Other readings suggest that the story deals with an artist’s obsession to draw and create perfect worlds to the exclusion of the more important qualities of human warmth and compassion. This approach suggests that imagination often is elevated at the expense of reality, and a depiction of real life often is sacrificed for art’s sake. Still others have emphasized Mary’s narcissism or her search for the Platonic ideal as the central theme of “The White Quail.” According to this reading, Steinbeck condemns self-centeredness and espouses the natural tension between evil and good rather than an idealistic pursuit of goodness.
Regardless of the interpretation the reader endorses, in the end, Steinbeck seems to echo Nathaniel Hawthorne in his portrait of unhappy men and women who create their own prisons. Steinbeck gives an uneasy closure to his story, leaving both Harry and Mary in uncomfortable opposition to each other, unable to find good in evil and evil in good.
Hughes, Robert S., Jr. “What Went Wrong? How a ‘Vintage’ Steinbeck Short Story Became the Flawed Winter of Our Discontent.” Steinbeck Quarterly 26, nos. 1–2 (Spring 1993): 1–7.
Steinbeck, John. “The White Quail.” In The Long Valley. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Timmerman, John H. “Introduction.” In John Steinbeck, The Long Valley. New York: Penguin, 1995.