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Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Nameless Stranger

“Say Yes” by Tobias Wolff is a short story about a couple who encounter a discussion concerning interracial marriages. This discussion happens primarily in the kitchen as the husband and wife are cleaning up after dinner. Wolff writes this story in a limited omniscience narrative from the husband’s perspective about the topic at hand. It is very apparent that the husband loves and respects his wife, but very strongly disagrees with her stance. Eventually the discussion stops and Ann, the wife, sends her husband to bed after he apologizes. She has him turn off the lights and enters the room in the dark, and the husband is suddenly struck by an odd emotion. The husband feels there is “a stranger” in the house. One of the most peculiar things about “Say Yes” is that Wolff left the husband nameless, whereby instigating the audience’s notion of him as a stranger even though he is the main character.

The audience is first introduced to the husband in “Say Yes” very early in the story. He is portrayed as a “considerate husband” by his wife’s friends since he helps out with a lot of the house work. The evidence from the short story coincide with this analysis of his love for his wife, especially when he hurries off to find “alcohol, cotton, and a Band-Aid” to help Ann after she pricked her finger on something. Considering his verbal tone during the argument, the husband tries to stay calm and level headed, only losing his temper once when he says, “These are dirty,” and “[dumps] all the silverware back into the sink.” This incident is the first indicator of the husband’s change in the story.

The choice to leave the husband nameless leaves several interpretations to be had. The first of which is that the audience is suppose to remain distant from the husband even though the narrative is from his perspective. The audience sees Ann’s reactions to what her husband is saying, but they are never more than the interpretation the husband sees. This is made evident several times throughout the text, one of which is when the husband notices that Ann “was piling dishes on the drainboard [sic] at a terrific rate, just wiping at them with the cloth.” Instances like this don’t give the audience insight to what Ann is thinking or feeling; it’s just a visual queue for the husband to understand her reaction. Also, when the audience is given a glimpse of what the husband is thinking, the glimpse seems a little arrogant. Taken from the first paragraph, when the husband is talking about when his wife’s friends think of him as “a considerate husband,” he thinks, “I try.” When he comes back with the Band-Aid, the husband also thinks, “that [Ann should appreciate] how quickly he had come to her aid.” Both instances, though they are complimentary to the husband, are still self centered thoughts which make the audience distance themselves from him when reading closer.

Another reason for distancing the audience from the husband is to help demoralize his case against interracial marriages. The husband thinks too logically, hoping to keep emotions out of the discussion. However, Ann, brings the emotional side of love and circumstances and force the husband to reconsider. The husband pulls arguments like “they don’t come from the same culture,” “they even have their own language,” and “most of [the interracial] marriages break up.” Wolff is trying to have the audience dislike his arguments and possibly distrust the husband. By having the audience distance themselves from the husband Ann becomes the next character to sympathize with. Her argument in the discussion is of emotion, and she attempts to bring her husband into that mindset by saying, “But if we had met, and I’d been black?” This sort of hypothetical question is ambiguous and the husband falls into the trap his wife set for him. The husband knows that he is “cornered” because he admits he wouldn’t marry Ann if she were black because “[she] wouldn’t be [herself].” Throughout the discussion, the lack of the husband having a name depicts his groundless argument between husband and wife.

The major reason the husband remains nameless is to associate him with the “stranger” who appears at the end of the story. In a way, having the husband without a name allows the audience to step into his shoes more easily as well as distance themselves from him. This allows the audience to feel the shift he goes through while he cleans the kitchen. When his wife leaves the kitchen in anger, the husband continues to clean the kitchen until “the kitchen looked new, the way it looked when they were first shown the house” which reflects his won mind. This is a pivotal moment for the husband. It is safe to assume that this couple moved into the house right after they got married and have lived there ever since. When the husband thinks “In another thirty years or so they would both be dead,” this gives the audience a sense of how old this couple is. Assuming the life expectancy to be 85 or so, the couple would be in their 50’s and probably would have been married in their early 20’s. A 30 year relationship certainly would have changed their relationship quite a bit, dispelling a lot of the newness they felt for each other when they got married. The kitchen changed with them, and formed into a representation of their relationship because the husband noticed the sudden cleanliness that hadn’t existed since “they were first shown the house.”

Therefore, by having it so clean, he notices his own relationship has changed and become new because of the discussion they are having. It’s also strange because they aren’t agreeing on something he sees so logically, assuming its infallibility in the logic he brings. However, logic doesn’t hold up to emotion and the husband is forced to assess his own standing on the subject while he cleaned the kitchen by himself; while he cleaned his relationship by himself. The very next scene, when the husband steps outside, he feels “his throat [tighten] so that eh could hardly breath” and two things happen. He feels remorse for the loss and disappearance of the relationship he had with his wife to this point. However, he also feels the love he knows is there for his wife because “His face and neck began to tingle [and] warmth flooded his chest.”

This new love he experiences from the birth of a new chapter in their relationship is the stranger that exists in the house. The last few sentences describe this feeling for the audience very clearly:
“The room was silent. His heart pounded the way it had on their first night together, the way it still did when he woke at a noise in the darkness and waited to hear it again – the sound of someone moving through the house, a stranger.”
The husband is excited about this new love he feels, and this is the same excitement he felt when he first fell in love with Ann at least 30 years ago. However, he also fears this new love; fears where it will take them and if it will survive. This doubt is evident when he equates his feeling to the “noise in the darkness.” By the husband saying “The room was silent,” he’s saying two things. The first is that he doesn’t know where his new love is going while the second represents his wife’s silence in the matter. She hasn’t given any indication whether she feels this turn in their relationship.

Ultimately, the husband is the “stranger” because his feelings on interracial marriage are strange and different to what Ann believed her husband would think. Also, his sudden creation of a new chapter in the marriage and new love for his wife has befitted him with strangeness in a long marriage. The most obvious indicator of the stranger is the lack of a name for the husband in such an intimate setting and conversation.

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