From The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
Some stories speak loudly and paint in aggressively broad strokes, jarring their reader with the shock of the unexpected. Others are quieter, detonating their narrative explosions more subtly, via language rather than incident. First published in the Partisan Review in 1946 and collected in the 1953 volume Children Are Bored on Sunday, Jean Stafford’s startling and difficult story “The Interior Castle” is of the second kind.
The tip off is in the title. This story is resolutely interior, focusing on the consciousness and subjectivity of a woman in hospital following a car crash. The accident was severe: the cabbie driving the taxi in question was killed and his passenger, Pansy Vanneman, fractured her skull and requires extensive surgery to her nose to allow her to breathe freely.
The entire story takes place in a hospital where doctors, interns, and janitors float in and out of Pansy’s perception. She, meanwhile, takes refuge in her mind, the only place where she feels truly whole and integral. The more the nurses try to engage her with magazines, puzzles, and the radio, the more Pansy retreats into the caverns of her head, which she conceives of “romantically, now as a jewel, now as a flower, now as a light in a glass, now as an envelope of rosy vellum containing other envelopes, one within the other, diminishing infinitely.”
The varied and colourful manner in which Pansy imagines her brain – the seat of her consciousness – is contrasted by the monotony of the hospital rooms and the exterior world. Significantly, the story takes place during winter; the skies hold promise “neither of sun nor of snow,” and the “trees could neither die nor leaf out again.” Pansy, we are told, “could not remember another season of life so constant, when the very minutes themselves were suffused with the winter pallor.” After a six-week convalescence, Pansy awakes and notices a flower pot with a bow on it; she realizes that Christmas must have passed, though she missed it altogether.
As for the hospital itself, Stafford describes the wards and operating theatres in bleak, austere language. The “routine of the hospital seemed as bland and commonplace as that of a bank or a factory,” the ceiling lights render everything “a uniform grey sordor,” and even the sunlight shining on the windows is “a murky smear.”
The contrast between the exterior drabness and the vividness of Pansy’s interior life highlights Stafford’s theme of the centrality of individual feminine consciousness; Pansy finds the outside world constant and unchanging, while the dreamscape of her mind offers her an escape into a romantic realm she can craft and control.
The latter is significant. At one point, Pansy recalls a garden party at which she “saw herself in an inappropriate pink hat”; after being spurned by a potential beau, she goes to the waterside and throws the pink hat into the sea. In her subjective, interior life Pansy retains the kind of control over events and people she is unable to achieve in the real world and she is able to create for herself a being that is true to her own nature and acceptable to her individual assessment of her personality and psychology.
She conceives of her brain as “pink and always fragile”; the comparison with the “inappropriate” hat is telling. “Often, but never articulately, the colour pink troubled her,” Stafford writes. This, we assume, has to do less with the association with traditional femininity and more to do with Pansy’s adoption of the colour as emblematic of her “innermost chamber of knowledge.” The colour disturbs her in the exterior, objective world because it represents in her eyes a resolutely private, interior space – her mind, the one thing that belongs to her alone.
In the course of the story, Pansy’s interior landscape is threatened by two “adversaries”: the constant pain from the accident, and Dr. Nicholas, the surgeon who will work on her nose. “Against Dr. Nicholas, she defended herself valorously and in fear; but pain, the pain, that is, that was independent of his instruments, she sometimes forced upon herself adventurously like a child scaring himself in a graveyard.” Yet again, Stafford insists on the significant distinction between the subjective and the objective, between what Pansy inflicts on herself and what is inflicted upon her.
The presentation of Dr. Nicholas is interesting. Pansy feels that he is a “[b]lunderer” but an “honourable enemy.” She “did not doubt his humaneness or his talent” but she “questioned whether he had imagination,” a quality the lack of which would render him much Pansy’s inferior in at least one respect. He is conceived as a narcissist, enamoured of his own abilities and his influence over the hospital’s interns (he always travels with an entourage). He appears more interested in Pansy’s nose than in Pansy herself, and the description of his own physiognomy is romantic in the same manner as Pansy’s reverie about the garden party:
His own nose was magnificent. Not even his own brilliant surgery could have improved upon it nor could a first-rate sculptor have duplicated its direct downward line which permitted only the least curvature inward toward the end; or the delicately rounded lateral declivities; or the thin-walled, perfectly matched nostrils.
The point of view here feels constant, as though this could be Pansy’s own assessment, though the writing is more objective and declaratory than elsewhere.
It is nowhere as startling as the most jarring passage in the story, which occurs about two pages later. For a page and a half, the consciousness shifts away from the close third person perspective on Pansy to a more objective third person from Dr. Nicholas’s point of view. Here, he is described not as a “blunderer,” but as “young, brilliant, and handsome,” an “aristocrat, a husband, a father, a clubman, a Christian, a kind counsellor, and a trustee of his preparatory school.” The passage observes Dr. Nicholas as from above as he studies Pansy, wondering about her psychology and her “complete passivity” during painful procedures. His attempts to understand her and her motivations from a purely scientific perspective are set in opposition to the spiralling inner life of Pansy’s mind.
There is nothing in the story to indicate that this extended passage is another of Pansy’s reveries. Rather, it appears to be a straightforward contrast between Pansy’s subjectivity and that of Dr. Nicholas and it presents a different view of Pansy that offers an alternative reading of her character and that of Dr. Nicholas. In this, it sets up the climactic section of the story, which involves the operation on Pansy’s nose and its effects on her mental state.
The operation is preceded by a scene in which Dr. Nicholas stuffs Pansy’s nostrils with anaesthetic gauze. The blatantly sexualized language makes explicit what the situation itself implies: the insertion of the anaesthetic packs and the subsequent surgery constitute a metaphorical rape, an infringement upon Pansy’s integrity and person. In case there were any doubt about that, in the operating theatre, Pansy becomes agitated when Dr. Nicholas tells his nurse, “I’m at this girl’s brain now.” He is, in other words, operating close to the very thing that Pansy depends upon for her sense of self and being. Though Pansy admits the need for her to be able to breathe, there is nevertheless an undeniable element of violation in this surgery, a fracturing of her subjective purity that renders her head, once the repository of colour and magic, “treasureless” in the story’s closing moment.
In its language and approach, “The Interior Castle” functions as a subtle work of psychological fiction (it is no surprise to learn that one of Stafford’s literary heroes was Henry James). It also operates as a harrowing tale of one woman’s fraught and fractured relationship with the world around her, and the constant threats to her psyche that world presents.