Analysis of Elizabeth Taylor’s Good-bye, Good-bye

Elizabeth Taylor’s poignant short story “Good-bye, Good-bye” was first published in the magazine Woman and Beauty and then collected in The Blush and Other Stories in 1958. The story’s title points to its theme of two painful farewells. These leavetakings occur between adulterous lovers, Peter and Catherine, the first recalled by Peter in retrospect, and the second occurring at the end of the story. “Good-bye” is a quintessential Taylor story for a number of reasons: It is informed by a Brontëan tale, the obsessive love of Catherine and Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights; it is quietly dramatic, portraying a momentous event in the lives of people doing ordinary things; and it demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of children’s lives, of their fears and certainties. Only the trenchant wit in much of Taylor’s fiction is not much in evidence, as she depicts the quiet despair of an impossible love.

From the story’s first words, it is infused with a sense of Peter’s urgent recklessness on the night before he leaves a second time for South Africa: “On his last evening in England he broke two promises—one, that he would dine with his brother, and another, older promise made to a woman whom he loved.” The second sentence starkly addresses the hopeless quandary of the lovers’ thwarted desire for each other: “When he and Catherine had tried, years before, to put an end to this impermissible love for one another the best they could decide was to give it no nourishment and let it wither if it would.”

Despite his promises, Peter decides to revisit the scene “where they had sometimes been together,” Catherine’s summer house by the sea. Here, the pervasive mood of repressed passion and regret is explicitly connected to the romantic Heathcliff and Catherine. Early on, Peter exclaims over Catherine’s daughter Sarah’s eyes: “ ‘Oh, Catherine’s eyes, those eyes!’ he thought. ‘The miracle, but the enormity, that they should come again; clearer, more beautiful’—he could not think it.” Readers of Wuthering Heights will remember the scene in which Heathcliff is disarmed by the eyes of the second Cathy and her cousin Hareton, which “are the eyes of Catherine Earnshaw,” as the narrating housekeeper Nelly Dean tells us. Peter’s love is unchangeable, like Heathcliff’s. Such allusions to the Brontës’ fiction are common and powerful in Taylor’s early fiction, from the gift of the book Wuthering Heights in Taylor’s first novel, At Mrs. Lippincote’s (1945), through the reworking of Jane Eyre’s governess tale in Taylor’s second novel, Palladian (1946), to the frustrated, enduring love of Catherine and Vesey in A Game of Hide-and-Seek (1954). The Brontës’ works are a marker of a shared literary inheritance between Taylor and her readers and between Taylor’s characters as well. Although Taylor’s fiction is most often compared to Jane Austen’s, Taylor in fact is much more likely to evoke the turbulent passions of the Brontës’ novels in the repressed subtext of her stories.

A book of selected short stories by Taylor published in 1995 is titled Dangerous Calm. This sense of the threat pervading the ordinary informs “Good-bye, Good-bye” as well. All through the introductions to the children and their friends—“Lucy, this is Mr. Lord. He gave you your Fairy-Tale book that you love so much”—there is the secrecy of their illicit past just behind the facade of Peter the avuncular, the memory of a passion that threatened these very children’s security. In fact, Peter is not a kindly uncle but the man who—like Heathcliff to Brontë’s Catherine—was like a god to the children’s mother: “Mr. Lord.” The romantic sunset, “explosive, Turneresque brilliance above the sand-hillocks,” is backdrop to a tense, discreet interplay between the lovers that resonates with memories of their forbidden meetings.

But the evening is experienced differently by Catherine than by Peter, even though she is deeply shaken by the encounter with her lost lover. Her eyes fill with tears when Peter praises her four children; it is her love for them that has divided Peter from her, her inability to make the children’s world unstable, much less to forsake them. In particular, Catherine identifies with her 16-year-old daughter Sarah, suffering because the boy she likes does not come to the beach that night: “ ‘It is worse for her now,’ Catherine thought, and she felt hostility towards men. ‘As it is worse for me.’ ” Catherine vacillates between thinking that Peter has become judgmental and admitting miserably to herself, as Peter plays affectionately with her little girl Lucy, “A barren evening. Nothing said; nothing felt, but pain. The wheel starting to creak again, starting to revolve in agony.” Catherine is unable to tell Peter what she feels because the children are there, and they must not know, must not be hurt: “ ‘I am in love with you still. In love, certainly. And there isn’t a way out and never will be now.’ Her eyes might say this without Lucy knowing, and she turned to him so that before he went away he could be a witness to her constancy.” Taylor’s quiet understatement, her fiction of manners, does seem informed in this passage by Austen. There is something of Jane Austen about this straining effort to communicate love despite all constraints, the resonance of Anne Elliot in Persuasion trying to tell Wentworth that she loves him without saying the words in a public place.

This love, unlike Anne’s and Wentworth’s, will not end happily. In the end, the lovers must simply know that theirs is an unchanging passion because they recognize the other’s suffering. When Peter asks Catherine for her forgiveness because he has disturbed her life, she responds, “I might have done the same.” While they have “no time” to talk alone, Peter knows that Catherine “was waiting for tears to recede, her head high, breath held. If he kissed her, she would fail, would break, weep, betray herself to the children.” Peter immediately thinks “To have thought of her so long, imagined, dreamed, called that child ’Catherine’ for her sake, started at the sight of her name printed in a book, pretended her voice to myself, called her in my sleep, and now sit close to her and it is almost over.” Their sad reunion is punctuated by the children’s picnic, by the children’s voices and needs, until the end, when Peter’s final “good-bye, good-bye” echoes that of the older children’s departing guests, as if Peter were leaving Catherine only for an evening instead of a lifetime.

Analysis of Elizabeth Taylor’s The Blush

Taylor, Elizabeth. The Blush. London: Peter Davies, 1958.
———. Dangerous Calm: The Selected Stories of Elizabeth Taylor. Edited by Lynne Knight. London: Virago, 1995.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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