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The image, the inexpressible and the shapeless in two short stories by Elizabeth Bishop

Lhorine François


« Gwendolyn » et « In the Village », deux nouvelles d'Elizabeth Bishop, sont construites autour de moments et de situations traumatiques dans lesquels narrateur et lecteurs sont mis en contact avec l'étrangeté informe, indicible de la mort et de la folie. Cet article explore la manière dont Elizabeth Bishop exploite le pouvoir métonymique des images, et la manière dont cela permet au texte de cerner au plus près ce qui ne peut être exprimé avec des mots. Ces images insérées, inscrites dans le texte, interrogent à la fois leurs limites et celles du texte et du langage. Enfin se pose la question du lien entre le pictural et la forme courte de la nouvelle : cette étude met en évidence l'interrelation entre la juxtaposition fragmentée d'images et la mise en œuvre d'une économie d'écriture condensée propre au genre de la nouvelle.

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Studied authors :

Elizabeth Bishop

Texte intégral

1Elizabeth Bishop's writing is mostly preoccupied with the question of loss in creation, and more precisely of loss as creation. She develops strategies of avoidance and of peripheral deviation to thematize the sensitivity, the pain of what is left unsaid and cannot be put into words. By leaving certain things unexpressed, Bishop's approach makes the reader experience for himself or herself the taboo of trauma, the pain caused by the void. The question that will concern us presently is the following : in her short stories, how does image serve such narratico-poetic strategies ? To this end, we will mainly focus on two of her most traumatic short stories : “Gwendolyn,” which deals with a child's death, and “In the Village” which tackles the same experience of loss as the one Bishop suffered when her own mother contracted dementia.

2The short story “Gwendolyn” is told by a child narrator who is acquainted with a little neighbor, Gwendolyn. The latter is about her age and seriously ill. The story is constructed and unfolds as follows : it is composed of three main parts ; its main, central section relates Gwendolyn's last days, and it is both preceded and followed by an incipit and an excipit from which Gwendolyn is absent but in which the young narrator recalls playing with a doll that is obviously Gwendolyn's counterpart, a doll that the narrator eventually uses to re-enact her young friend's funeral. The story ends with the narrator being surprised in the process of this game, and being scolded for it by her grandparents.

3Gwendolyn, who appears only in the second part of the story, seems no more real than the doll, as she is depicted as an archetype : “to me she stood for everything that the slightly repellent but fascinating words ‘little girl’ should mean. In the first place her beautiful name. Its dactyl trisyllables could have gone for ever as far as I was concerned.” (Collected Prose, 216). She embodies a verbal representation that is encapsulated in language by the words “little girl.” Thus the relationship between life and representation is reversed. Bishop already reflected on such a reversal in a poem, interestingly entitled “Poem” (Collected Poems, 176-177). I suggest a small detour through this poem to enlighten our understanding of how the character Gwendolyn, in connection with the doll, is built as an image of the anxiety born from the confrontation with the void of death and the shapelessness of loss. The title, “Poem,” suggests that we are going to be presented with an archetypal specimen, and yet this poem turns out to be about a picture. Both verbal and visual representations as means of endurance and memory appear as attempts to counter life's ephemeral nature, its subjection to time and with it, to contingency, change, and loss. The process involved consists in :

art copying from life and life itself

life and the memory of it so compressed

they've turned into each other. Which is which ? (v.52-54).

4But at the same time in this poem, the unbridgeable gap between reality and representation persists and is reaffirmed, loss taking part in the representation. So if we come back to the character of Gwendolyn, we can see that it serves as an enactment of the verbal representation carried by the expression “little girl” which is itself an embodiment of a real life concept. It is then twice remote from the original. In the same way, representation overrides the reality depicted when the child narrator mentions her friend's diabetes : “She had diabetes. I had been told this much and had some vague idea that this was because of ‘too much sugar,’ and that in itself made Gwendolyn even more attractive, as if she would prove to be solid candy if you bit her, and her pure-tinted complexion would taste exactly like icing-sugar Easter eggs or birthday candle-holders, held to be inedible, except that I knew better” (216). Gwendolyn is presented here as the embodiment of a child's fantasy. She is thus slowly constructed as a recipient encapsulating intangible impressions. She becomes an icon.

5This is reinforced by her being constantly placed in the position of a doll – the image of the doll thus progressively imposing itself to the point where it will completely replace the “real child.” At one point in the story, for instance, during a picnic, she is lifted by the narrator's grandfather and held on his knee just as one holds a doll pretending it is a real child.

6Gwendolyn is in fact a character which makes not death, but the representation of death become real. What I mean is that death cannot be real except for the one actually dying and therefore the direct experience of death cannot be related. The only thing that can be represented is the witnessing of others' deaths. Correspondingly, the story does not start off with a notion (that of death, or of loss) trying to encapsulate it and describe it, but with a representation and then, through this vector, it seems to approach the concept behind it. The story enables the narrator to express death, to “say it,” or “write it,” literally : “Two days after this visit, Gwendolyn did die” (221). This recalls another poem, “One Art,” about “the art of losing,” which ends with the poetic voice staging herself as forcing herself to “write,” that is to acknowledge, the disaster that loss represents for her : “the art of losing's not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it !) like disaster.” (Collected Poems, 178).

7The transfer of Gwendolyn’s fate onto the doll, although it makes her death fictional, reinvests death with a visual tangibility, if not reality. Gwendolyn and the doll, as images, endow death with a greater degree of reality or tangibility (once again, of course, from the point of view of the witness). In other words she does not stand for death itself, but for the way human beings conceive of it and how they cope with it. In this regard, Bishop provides an interesting counter-example with the episode of the narrator visiting the graveyard with her grandfather who tells her, on this occasion, about various people's deaths. This telling does not register at all like the actual seeing of Gwendolyn's coffin, the unbearable loneliness that it conveys as it lays there in front of the church waiting to be carried inside. The effect of the image on the character-narrator is much greater than any telling of it because of its spatial quality and of the pre-linguistic mode of perception that it involves.

8The proximity of the funeral, and later of the coffin, is made to contrast with the way in which the narrator tells the reader about it. She does so through a focalization that is remote from the scene and which thematizes both the inapproachable quality of death and the impossibility to represent either this shapeless otherness or the inexpressible feelings of anxiety, loss, panic, etc. that it engenders. Here is how she witnesses the scene of the villagers attending the funeral. First, there is a tension between the nearness of the event (she lives across the road from the church) and the fact that she is forbidden to go to the funeral. She is sent to play at the back of the house and insists on the indirection of her testimony as she builds a picture of the scene that plays on perspective, the backroom where she is to play having an inside window connecting it to the kitchen, which itself has another window on the other side opening onto the church. Through the backroom window, the child narrator first witnesses not the funeral itself, but her grandmother's pain, that is, the impact of the funeral on someone else. Here again, she underlines the indirection of the process of representation, visual or linguistic. Then she tries to approach the scene and sneaks into the parlor but even there insists on the framing of the scene, hence on the distancing of it : “There were long lace curtains at the window and the foxgloves and bees were just outside, but I had a perfectly clear, although lace-patterned, view of everything.” Yet, even as this more “direct” view offers itself to her, she resorts to another strategy of deviation by means of a digression evoking her visits to the graveyard. And only afterwards does the little coffin appear in front of the church, a scene depicted as being impossible:

But suddenly, as I watched through the window, something happened at the church across the way. Something that could not possibly have happened, so that I must, in reality, have seen something like it and imagined the rest ; or my concentration on the one thing was so intense that I could see nothing else [...] [T]wo men in black appeared again, carrying Gwendolyn's small white coffin [...] they put it down just outside [...] then they disappeared again. For a minute I stared through my lace curtain at Gwendolyn's coffin, with Gwendolyn shut invisibly inside it forever, there, completely alone on the grass by the church door (223-224).

9The long introduction to the terrifying image of the lonely coffin also constitutes in itself a further delay. Indirection in space and time appears as the means by which story-telling manages to approach and convey utter strangeness such as that of death as well as the feelings of loss, isolation, and abandonment connected to it.

10So let us now consider how the image of the doll partakes of this strategy to deal with the shapeless and the inexpressible. The title “Gwendolyn” is followed by an incipit devoid of any character called Gwendolyn. Instead, we are quickly presented with a doll whose name, we are told, the grandmother has forgotten. This detail makes the doll available to adopt the name “Gwendolyn”, providing a body for the name as it hangs so far, disembodied, in the title. This will in turn allow the projection of Gwendolyn's fate onto it. We will see that its being both life-like and lifeless eventually calls for its use as a representation of a dead body.

11As we have already noted, the “nameless doll” appears before Gwendolyn enters the scene, then disappears during the narration of Gwendolyn's final days, and reappears only after the girl's death. This sets not a metonymic but a metaphoric relationship between them as though the doll were a representation meant to replace the original. As a metaphor for Gwendolyn, the doll allows the child-narrator to come to terms with the otherwise disparaging idea of Gwendolyn's death and her irreparable loss. By playing at staging Gwendolyn's funeral, the children (the narrator and her cousin) appropriate the other child's death. They turn this strange worrying feeling of death into an embellishing ceremony and derive a pleasure from this aesthetic taming or aesthetic domestication of this utter and otherwise unacceptable strangeness. The image of the doll and all the children project onto it thus are at the core of the strategy of avoidance and domestication of the unacceptable and ultimate otherness. And indeed, that is what a toy is meant for : to re-enact real-life events so as to appropriate them. A life-like doll is a mirror-object for real life people. The use of a doll partakes of a game of make-believe, as Kendall L. Walton puts it in his article “Looking at pictures and looking at things” : “Pictures are props in games of make-believe. They function in many ways as dolls, hobby horses, and toy trucks do” (103). Then he adds : “My claim is that all representational pictures bring the viewer into a fiction, a game of make-believe, together with the people and objects which are depicted” (107). In “Gwendolyn”, the doll is the source of a game of make-believe re-enacting the funeral. The doll also allows the narrator to cease standing as a witness and to become an actor in the farewell to the deceased. She is enabled to take part in the funeral process and also in its domestication through the spatialization and aesthetic embellishment it allows, especially as the doll is a beautiful one. For the reader, the use of this scene with the doll operates as a picture of the child's disorientation and of her need to materialize it.

12However, what is more troubling is that the stories that little girls re-enact with their dolls are mock scenes, which include the idea of counterfeiting, of undermining real, serious life. This is precisely what happens when the little girl replays the burial of her friend Gwendolyn : she derides something held to be most serious, and that is also why she is scolded for doing so, because this deriding dimension disturbs the adults who discover the game. They are troubled by that picture of their own social, adult ritual of the funeral meant to appease the feelings of dissolution generated by irredeemable loss by giving them a place to be expressed. The child's game operates as a glass revealing the inadequacy of the adult ritual to assuage grief or make sense of the void of death.

13The combination of Gwendolyn as an image of the typical little girl, and of the doll as an image of the domestication of death, works as a sort of puzzle creating a larger image of something inexpressible: that of the feeling of injustice and of the impossibility of understanding the loss of beauty, of innocence and its dissolution into shapeless void.

14This process of mapping the inexpressible also informs the short story “In the Village.” Again, the piecemeal puzzle is made of various objects conveying images of loss, but it also includes the image of a sound. More precisely, “In the Village” is constructed around two sounds : the echo of a scream, let out by the little girl's mother in a fit of madness, and its aesthetic counterpart or, one might say, its antidote, the clang of the nearby forge. The echo works as a mirror-image of the original scream. As for the blacksmith's clang, it seems to attempt to outperform the disturbing scream and stands as a negative image of it. What is of interest here is that the echo is spatialized from the very beginning of the story, notably by the repeated verb “hang” and the comparison with a stain:

A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that Nova Scotian village. No one hears it ; it hangs there forever, a slight stain in those pure blue skies, skies that travelers compare to those of Switzerland, too dark, too blue, so that they seem to keep on darkening a little more around the horizon – or is it around the rims of the eyes ? – the color of the cloud of bloom on the elm trees, the violet on the fields of oats ; something darkening over the woods and waters as well as the sky. The scream hangs like that, unheard, in memory – in the past, in the present and those years between (251).

15Through this spatialization, the scream becomes an image of the overwhelming presence of trauma when faced with madness, with the annihilation of reason, the fading into shapelessness.

16In the same way, the story is made of several little episodes, each being presented as a fragment of a puzzle that the reader tries to put together to finally reconstruct an overall picture encapsulating the feeling of an experience of loss. Rather than a linear description of that experience, Bishop once again adopts fragmented, spatial strategies in an attempt to make readers feel some inexpressible feeling precisely by making them feel they are denied easy access to it.

17Within each of these episodes, the story accumulates objects which become pictures of an absence, namely here that of the little girl's mother who appears to have had a nervous breakdown and who is finally permanently confined there. All the objects are either metonymically connected to the mother without referring directly to her, language thus embodying her absence, or they point to an absence, thus multiplying the experience of loss throughout the story. The mother's “things” that arrive just before she is back from a stay in an asylum all point to a lost past : postcards from absent friends from the days of happiness, broken china symbolizing the broken marriage, a “silver-framed photograph quickly turned over” that the reader assumes might be that of the lost husband, a mourning dress which both evokes the mother without naming her as well as the reason of her breakdown, and which consequently points to the woman that she no longer is, an ivory stick that the little girl steals and hides by burying it so that it is both kept and lost. Later a five-cent piece is subject to the same treatment as the little girl swallows it so as not to lose it. Later again, the girl passes shop windows in which she discovers shoes, but significantly each time only one of the pair is displayed. Further in the story, a fire breaks out in the night. On that occasion the narrator hears disembodied voices. This device plays a major part in building a metonymic description of absence and panic. Finally, we learn implicitly that the mother has been sent away: “Now the front room is empty.”

18All these images are fragments that indirectly delineate the realm of anxiety provoked by something surpassing all understanding and all acceptance. The collection of images is not meant to depict a clear picture. Their indirection rather invites the reader to probe their margins, the margins of meaning and presence, on the threshold of strangeness, of incomprehensible and therefore inexpressible otherness.

19Thus through the use of a network of juxtaposed images, Bishop manages to portray, if not express, the disorientation and despondency experienced in the confrontation with the shapeless or with some utter strangeness, the resort to such efficient, condensed fragments suiting perfectly the dynamics of short story writing and reading.


Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems 1927-1979. NY : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

---. The Collected Prose. Ed. Robert Giroux. NY : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.

Walton, Kendall L. “Looking at Pictures and Looking at Things” in The Philosophy of the Visual Arts, Philip Anderson (Ed.). NY, Oxford : Oxford UP, 1992.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Lhorine François, “The image, the inexpressible and the shapeless in two short stories by Elizabeth Bishop”, Journal of The Short Story in English, 56, spring 2011, 137-143.

Référence électronique

Lhorine François, « The image, the inexpressible and the shapeless in two short stories by Elizabeth Bishop », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 56 | Spring 2011, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2013, consulté le 27 avril 2018. URL :


Lhorine François

Lhorine François is currently working as an ATER at the University of Bordeaux 3 and has just obtained her Doctorate, which she started at the University of Nantes and finished in Paris (Paris 3 - Sorbonne Nouvelle). She worked for her PhD on Elizabeth Bishop's poems and short stories.

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