Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

The Potential of the Peripheral

Secondary Characters in Jane Smiley’s The Age of Grief

by Robin Black


Some years ago, toward the end of an hour-long class during which a group was workshopping one of my stories, someone in the room said, “I was just wondering, don’t these people ever run into anyone else? Don’t their waiters ever talk to them? Don’t they have any friends?” My notes from that comment read: “Secondary characters. What is it with me? Where are they all? Must find them. Must use them. Duhhh.”

At that moment, it may have seemed obvious—duhhh—but in fact, I had never given much thought to secondary characters. To the extent that they appeared at all in my work, I treated most incidental figures as characters of convenience, whose presence I primarily tolerated for what they could provide, in very practical ways, for my main characters. If my leading lady needed a cab ride, she would be driven by a cabbie, but that driver would be as sketchy a figure as I could make him. If my narrator had a mistress, she would have no life of her own, existing in the story only as the genesis of his aching conscience and little else. I treated such characters stingily, and in return they brought very little to the work. They gave me none of the sub-plots they might have provided, and none of the welcome tonal shifts; none of the surprises, and none of the new perspectives on my central characters that might in turn make them more compelling. Most importantly, these one-dimensional figures gave my stories none of the expansiveness that might have resulted from characters whose hearts and whose own stories were made available to readers, even if their struggles, dreams and full life histories were not ultimately occupying center stage.

My scant use of a supporting cast came about at least in part because I feared losing my hold on the question of what was at stake in each work. Writing short stories at the time, a form for which necessity is a common demand, I was terrified (a strong word, but an accurate one) of introducing anything or anyone a reader might consider irrelevant into my work. But relevance, I have come to see, is a double-edged sword. While it’s true that wholly unrelated, disconnected story threads can distract to the point of destroying, it’s equally true that a work in which the relevance of every element and every figure is unambiguously clear is likely to be an overly tidy work, one in which the presence of a controlling, directive author is also all too clear.

Anchor Books 2002 (1987)

At around the time I began to understand that my secondary characters and I might have much more to give to one another, I read Jane Smiley’s novella “The Age of Grief” and was struck by the amount of attention given to non-central figures on the page. “The Age of Grief” is a first person narrative, told by David Hurst, a dentist. The central drama revolves around David’s suspicion that his wife, Dana, also a dentist, is romantically involved with another man. By the time David tells us the story, the involvement has ended, but the concerns and the questioning go on.

Smiley populates the novella with a very large supporting cast. David and Dana have three children, they have families of origin, they have a shared office staff of four, they have memorable figures from their common dental education, they have patients and they have, of course, the shadowy figure of the Other, the man with whom David believes Dana to be involved. In addition there are brief appearances by many minor players—a teacher, a school friend, a nurse, among them. In all, there are approximately thirty characters in “The Age of Grief” which is a mere seventy-six pages long. Yet the first time I read the novella it never occurred to me that Smiley had overpopulated her work. It all made sense. No single character diverted me from the story of the couple and of their marriage, and in fact these potentially distracting figures lend to the intensity of the central drama, even doing so, at times, by leaving that subject and that storyline for a bit. Most importantly, throughout, Smiley uses secondary characters to define and then redefine our sense of the man who is at center stage, the narrator, David Hurst.

I. Secondary Characters as Guests: Introductions, Please

It’s no small task to introduce thirty or so secondary and minor characters in the course of fewer than eighty pages. The clearest danger is confusion, both about who people are and also about the degree to which they matter, but Smiley not only navigates the potentials for mix-up and misdirection, she also uses those potentials to her own ends.

Minor characters appear immediately in “The Age of Grief.”  In the opening paragraph of the novella, we meet Professor Perl, a teacher who picked on Dana in dental school because she was a woman, and two pages later we hear about Phil Levine and Marty Crockett, the men who beat her out in the class order, graduating first and second to her third. Smiley’s methods in these early introductions are predictive of techniques she will use throughout the novella to keep her characters memorable and distinct:

The next year things changed, and a fifth of [the students] were women, so maybe Professor Perl . . . didn’t persist in his habit of turning to the only woman in the class and saying “Miss McManus, did you understand that (121)?”

If Dana were reminded these days that she hadn’t graduated first in our class but third, she would pretend indifference, but she was furious then. What did it matter that Phil Levine, who was first, hadn’t been out of his apartment after dark in three years and his wife seemed to have taken a vow of silence, which she broke only when she told him she was going to live with another guy? Or that Marty Crockett, number two, was a certified genius and headed for NASA as the first dentist in space (124)?

In each case Smiley devotes only a sentence or two to the person, and in each case, too, she finds a unique detail to have David recount. This continues throughout the novella. Characters who are only mentioned once are carefully grounded with a single defining physical or personal trait. Tessa, a friend of David’s youngest daughter, “wears a tiny ponytail smack on the top of her head” (129). Dana’s sister Frances is so perennially carsick that anyone driving her has to “pull over so that Frances can give her all on the side of the road” (146). Her brother Joe can “bench-press 250 pounds, though he doesn’t lift weights as a hobby” (204). And there are David’s father and mother. The former is chatty and social; the latter, withdrawn and nearly silent. And so on and on and on. Teeth, as David reminds us, are the part of the body most often used to identify people when all else is gone. David, a dentist, is notably skillful at finding an identifying feature in each character he mentions along the way, even while he may be failing to detect essential and central complexities. And though the craft belongs to Smiley, the accounts are believable as David’s, at least in part because he is presented throughout as a meditative and observant man—albeit one who is trying to hide important truths from himself.

In the two passages about dental school, above, Smiley does something else as well, something beyond merely making each character distinct. She alludes to an imagined time or slightly removed reality different from the historical context of dental school in which they appear, and these allusions perform a similar, technical function each time. It is as though the character to whom David refers is gently but firmly placed on a path away from the tale David tells. These three men may appear in his story, but each also has a story of his own; and this implication in turn helps a reader intuitively understand that they are only incidental and not central characters. David doesn’t know for sure what became of Professor Perl because Professor Perl ceased to be relevant after their freshman year—and he’s certainly not relevant now. Phil Levine, in turn, is a man who had his own drama, literally contained within his own walls, and also had his own trauma with which to contend. And Marty Crockett, most dramatically, is sent out into space, far, far away from this narrative. Smiley is directive without seeming at all to be so, as she keeps the figures from David’s and Dana’s past contained to his memory and destined for their own futures.

At the same time, paradoxically, David’s own tendency to become distracted from the question of what is truly at stake is evident even in these early pages. While Smiley is careful to take precautions that we, as readers, not be confused over what is central to this story, she uses the same secondary characters to make it clear that the narrator himself is confused at times. As the novella progresses, David will prove to be powerfully drawn to the periphery of his own tale—as befits a man who frequently admits that he is avoiding facing the truths about his own life. The elegance of what Smiley accomplishes lies in the fact that David’s distraction never becomes ours. He may be in continual danger of losing track of what’s at stake, but his narrative never is.

At other times, Smiley uses nomenclature—or more accurately its absence—to direct us toward what is and isn’t important. David has parents and a brother; that much we know. And we even know some personality traits of both his parents, just enough to help us understand him a bit better. But we don’t know his brother’s name or anything about David’s current relationship to him. By leaving David’s family members unnamed and by keeping the door shut to their current roles in his life, Smiley tacitly closes off our inquiries.

II. Secondary Characters as World: Society, Witness and Atmosphere

The Hursts exist together in two separate societies: domestic and professional. Though these realms are in some ways parallel, and are acknowledged by David as such (148), their treatment in the novella is very different. As David describes the office staff he and Dana share, the care later taken to keep their daughters distinct from one another (discussed below) is entirely absent. The following paragraph is a tribute to confusion, rife with the potential for mixing up almost everybody:

The receptionists are Katharyn and Dave, eight to one and one to six, six bucks an hour, and the assistants are Laura (mine) and Delilah (Dana’s), eight to two and noon to six, fifteen bucks an hour. Our receptionists are always students at the university and turn over about every two and a half years. Laura has been my assistant for five years, and Delilah came last year, replacing Genevieve. Both, as I said before, have sets of twins: Laura’s fraternal, twelve years old, and Delilah’s identical, four years old. Laura and Delilah also have pension plans, so, of course, we are also a financial institution, with policy decisions and long-term planning goals and investment strategies. Dave is a flirt. For convenience, he is known as “Dave” while I am known as “Dr. Dave,” even, at the office, to Dana. Katharyn has been engaged for three years to an Arabian engineer she met during her freshman year. Laura is divorced, edgy, bossy with the patients. Delilah is rounded, soft, an officer in the local Mothers of twins club, which Laura has never joined (148-149).

From the first sentence, it is impossible not to feel somewhat muddled. So much information is released all at once—names, jobs, hours of work, salaries, personal lives. The life of the office itself spills over from the pages of this story, into the past, into homes we will never enter, even, not coincidentally, into “Arabia,” the legendary land of tales told to preserve one’s own life. As with the earlier references to the futures and private lives of the dental school figures, these references serve to give the novella an open, expansive quality by implying a larger world just outside our ken. They also serve to illustrate for us once again the fact that David’s own mind is filled with details, with somewhat irrelevant observations and, most importantly, with distractions from his own situation. Though David describes himself as a meditative man, the degree to which his own account of his life and marital crisis is so crowded with minutiae serves to call that assessment into question. If he is meditative, it is not generally about that on which it might be most useful that he meditate. But then, as one of his central, stated goals throughout the novella is to avoid having to see clearly the fact that his wife is disloyal to him, his overdeveloped peripheral vision is understandable.

Smiley also uses the office figures to achieve something like a shift in atmosphere and in tone, this time toward humor. One of the most basic comic tropes, dating back at least as far as Plautus, is that of mistaken identity. Here, Smiley gives us example after example of potential mix-ups along those lines. Everyone has at least one double. There are two Dr. Hursts, two receptionists, two assistants, two women each with a set of twins, and even two men named David. Were this a Shakespearean comedy, rather than a heart-wrenching novella, it would be only a matter of moments before characters were opening letters meant for other people, calling one twin by the name of the other and wondering why the Dr. Hurst they saw a year before has suddenly turned into a woman.

I’m not claiming that Smiley uses the dental office for much comic effect. She doesn’t.  There aren’t many laughs in this tale. But in the particular and peculiar way in which she staffs the workplace, Smiley nods in comedy’s direction, as if acknowledging the possibility for humor in the situation. We look at this cast of oddball, same-named, overly twinned characters and feel, if only semiconsciously, that it should be funny. It could be funny. There are all the classic, ancient ingredients for comedy in these words; and their presence, even in the absence of their full realization, does provide some relief from the grief-stricken tone of the domestic sphere.

In addition, the office staff members function as witnesses to what goes on between David and Dana. Late in the novella, when Dana cancels her patients for two days in a row, David’s narration focuses on receptionist Dave’s discomfort with the obvious discord between the Hursts:

Dave was surprised at my surprise. Man to man. He didn’t look at me. He said, looking at the floor, “Didn’t you know that she cancelled everything?” Man to man. I didn’t look at him. I said, “Maybe she told me and I wasn’t listening. It was a busy morning.” Man to man. We glanced at each other, briefly, embarrassed (211).

Narrator David’s own inattentiveness is highlighted by the surprise of receptionist Dave. “Maybe she told me and I wasn’t listening,” he says—forced by this witness to his household’s disrepair to admit, in a somewhat transfigured and characteristically offhand form, to his own most central weakness and even to his own tragic flaw: I wasn’t listening. That the witness to this admission bears his name, adds another twist to the scene, as David Hurst’s discomfort with looking into an accurate reflection of himself becomes all too clear—to us, if not to him.

III. Secondary Characters as Forces of Transformation

Questions relating to transformation haunt this novella. How did that couple become this couple? Who will they next become? Has Dana changed in ways that David either cannot see or refuses to see? Has he? In his narration, David presents us with five different versions of Dana and himself, who they are, have been or might become. These are:

  1. Who they were in dental school and during their courtship.
  2. Who they were during their marriage, before any trouble was evident.
  3. Who they are during this six-week period of crisis, the time frame of the story.
  4. Who they might become, if things spin out of what David believes is his control.
  5. Who they have become, by the close of the novella, at the point from which he tells the story.

Pressures put on the Hursts by other characters play a large role in their transformations from one of these states to the next, as well as in how David attempts to control the change he fears most. Not surprisingly, the most important secondary characters—their children—play critical roles in these transformative events.

David and Dana are parents to three daughters: Elizabeth (Lizzie), Stephanie, and Leah. During the story’s six week span, Lizzie is seven, Stephanie, five, and Leah, two. The first mention of the children comes early in the novella, amidst a description of what David and Dana were like before parenthood, during their dental school days:

After that, we’d go back to her place and make love until the adrenaline in our systems had broken down. Sometimes that was a long time. But we were up at six, fresh and sexy, Dana pumped up for the daily challenge of crushing the dental school between her fists like a beer can, and me for the daily challenge of Dana. Now we have three daughters. We strap them in the car and jerk the belts to test them. One of us walks the older ones to school every day, although the distance is two blocks. The oldest, Lizzie, would be floored by the knowledge that Dana and I haven’t always crept fearfully from potential accident to potential accident the way we do now (123-124).

There is the then of their courtship about which we have heard in some detail in the opening pages, and there is the now of their married life. These are not only temporally but also qualitatively, even tonally different times, and the transformation is both caused and documented by acts of parenting. So, as we are introduced to the girls, we are also introduced to how David views their impact on himself and on his wife.

In contrast to the office staff, from their first mention in the passage above, Smiley metes out the information about the children, helping us to keep them distinct from one another and not be overwhelmed by the sudden introduction of three new and presumably important characters. We know immediately that there are three daughters, but we are only given the name of one, Lizzie, as well as her birth order and a memorable fact or hypothesis about her. By the time we meet her younger sisters, nearly three pages later, David has mentioned only Lizzie several more times, and so, with her firmly placed in our heads, we are in little danger of muddling up which daughter is which when the other two are introduced.

As it turns out, the youngest of the Hurst’s daughters is the one who has the most important and the oddest role in the novella. In the passage below, Smiley begins to differentiate her from her sisters, while the distinctly distant tone David uses to discuss Lizzie and Stephanie defines them immediately as relatively minor characters:

I sound as if we never forget that we are dentists, as if when someone smiles we automatically class their teeth as “gray range” or “yellow range.” Of course we are also parents. These are my three daughters, Lizzie, Stephanie, and Leah. They are seven, five, and two. The most important thing in the world to Lizzie and Stephanie is the social world of the playground. The most important thing to Leah is me. Apart from the fact that Lizzie and Stephanie are my daughters, I am very fond of them (127-128).

Stephanie is not distinguished from Lizzie, but Leah is. When I first read this passage, which follows nearly ten opening pages of description and background throughout which the central conflict of the story is by no means yet clear, I could feel myself grasping at the peculiar separation of Leah from her sisters for possible guidance in locating that conflict. Something was different and even seemingly amiss about the third daughter, and my assumption was that this something would be the crux of the story. As it turns out, it isn’t the crux. Leah’s preference for her father is not presented as the central conflict of the piece—the suspected adultery is—but her peculiarity forms an intertwined parallel plot and creates a steady pressure on the central characters while also creating an echo of the novel’s central anxiety over loyalty and changes of preference.

The paragraph quoted above is followed by fairly lengthy descriptions of the girls in order of their ages. We are told that Lizzie is “naturally graceful and cool” and that Stephanie is their “boy” who “feels about kindergarten the way people used to feel about going away to college” (128). Gradually, though, as these earliest descriptions continue, the two older girls are merged into one, into a “they.” “They have a lot of confidence and power when it comes to boys” (128-129). “The unknown age they wish to know all about is their own” (129). By stressing the many ways in which these two daughters can be collapsed into one entity, Smiley continues to pique our curiosity about the special, different status of the third.

This curiosity is finally, at least partially, rewarded when David goes on to ‘unpack’ for us the sentence: “[t]he most important thing to Leah is me” (128). Moving down the birth order, having told us quite a bit about her sisters, he then describes Leah as a baby—and not just any baby, but a particularly gratifying one. She was easy, she slept amazingly well, with her first word she asked her mother—an aspiring singer—to sing. “Leah was everything [Dana] could want and she, as far as she knew, was everything that Leah could want” (130).

But then, without warning, all that changed:

In each instance, Leah woke up crying for me, Dana went to comfort her and was sent packing. The longer she stayed and the more things she tried, the wilder Leah got. The first bout lasted from midnight to twelve thirty and the second from two forty-five until three forty. I woke up at last, wondering what Dana was doing, motionless beside me, and Dana said, “I won’t go to her. You have to go to her.” That was the beginning (132).

“That was the beginning,” David tells us and, first reading the story, I believed him to mean, at least in part, that this was the beginning of the central conflict of the story. This, I thought, will turn out to be the story of how a high-powered, successful couple deals with the transformation of their perfect baby into such a difficult, hurtful, and seemingly irrational child. There seemed to me to be enough material nestled within our introduction to Leah, to support an entire narrative. Not until three pages later, when David tells us almost as an aside that during the same time period “Dana fell in love with one of her fellow singers, or maybe it was the musical director” (136) did I understand that Leah’s difficulties, which I had been assuming were the central conflict of the story, were not, though that sense of transformation, of a lost era of happiness, so entwined with Leah’s role in the work, both haunts and echoes the adultery.

Throughout the novella, Smiley resists the temptation to define the relation between the Leah storyline and the adultery storyline. They co-exist and that’s all the information we’re given. This happened at the same time as that. Yet, in part because of their thematic resonances, it’s impossible not to search for a more explicit, causal relation between the two. Has one transformation led to another? Does Dana stray because she feels betrayed by the child who had formerly so adored her? Is she getting back at David for unwittingly stealing the affections of her favorite child? Is Leah repelled by her mother because she somehow senses in her the potential for disloyalty? Is David using Leah to punish Dana somehow? Smiley’s text never asks these questions explicitly, much less answers them, in part because David would never ask these questions, and in part because to ask and to answer would be to rob the story of some of the ambiguity that keeps a reader involved. Rather, Smiley leaves those questions unspoken, but inevitable, irresistible to any reader who is interested in human psychology, the engine that pulls this particular tale along.

While the novella is saturated with the implication that parenthood in general and Leah in particular have contributed to the transformation of the Hursts, other characters too have transformative powers throughout. One of these is the patient, Slater. Slater is perhaps the most surprising character to take on any prominence in this work. We hear fairly little about David’s and Dana’s other patients, even the ones who are named. In part, this is true because David doesn’t like to speak with them. He prefers the orderly quiet of “sitting here, my back hunched, the office cool and clean, the patient half asleep” (151). Slater, however, challenges this expectation, initially suggesting that he pay David to talk to him, like a psychiatrist, instead. Indeed, part of his role in the novella is to challenge what we think we know about David up to that point, though in David’s actual interactions with Slater, he behaves very much as we would expect him to:

“I don’t know,” [Slater] said. “Things are more fucked up every day.”

“Open, please,” I said.

“I mean, I don’t know why I’m sitting here having my teeth fixed. It’s going to cost me a lot of money that I could spend having the other stuff fixed. By the way, don’t touch the front teeth. I play the trumpet, and if you touch the front teeth, then I’ll have to change my embouchure.”

I said, “Open, please” (169-170).

There are no surprises here. This is David Hurst, the pent-up, denial-bound, somewhat numbed dentist we have come to know. But when Slater leaves the office—in corpus at least, if not in spirit—things change. And so does David Hurst:

After he left I wanted him back. I wanted the navy-blue collarless jacket that he wouldn’t take off. I wanted the Sansabelt slacks that stretched tight over his derriere. I wanted the loafers. I wanted him to tell me about his wife. He didn’t smile much. He had a rough way of speaking. He was tall and not a pleasant man. It seemed to me that I could have drilled his teeth without novocaine, man to man, and it would have relieved us both (171).

Grief, I saw, had loosened him up, as if at the joints, and up and down his vertebrae. He had become a man who would do or say anything, would toss his head back or fling out his arms in a gesture impossible before. He wouldn’t leave me all alone. I felt bitterly sorry for him all afternoon. It seemed to me that his fate would be an ill one, and mine, too. All of our fates.

By the time Dana came home, I couldn’t stop doing things as Slater might have done them (171-172).

What follows is a very odd interlude, in which David claims that he went in and out of feeling as though he were Slater, the crude, uncaring man with nothing to left to lose. And, as Slater, he views his family anew:

The woman was blond, sort of pretty, and nice enough. But I thought her children were horrible, the oldest sullen and suspicious—clank, clank-clank went her knife and fork on the plate—the next one an oblivious blonde, masticating her food with annoying languor, and the third irritating and squawking. At last, inevitably, Leah smacked her bowl and it landed upside down on the floor. As Slater, I waited for their mother to do something about it. As my wife, Dana looked at me expectantly. Leah looked at me expectantly. I pretended to be their father. I jumped up and grabbed Leah out of her chair, and said in gruffish tones, “That’s enough. I’m putting you into bed.” And I carried her upstairs (173).

This passage, as well as the several pages that follow in which David continues to act literally “out of character,” accomplish several goals for the novella. At the point at which Slater arrives—just about halfway through—we’ve already met the central players, and we already know, fairly well, what the central conflict is. There is a certain sense of stasis at this point, and a feeling, for the reader, that something should happen now. There is also the related potential for a reader to grow frustrated with David’s passivity. He exerts no authority over his children, one of whom makes near grotesque demands on her parents; and faced with a wife he believes to be disloyal, his strategy is to play possum to avoid a confession, much less a confrontation. Nothing we know about David at this point can give us much faith that he will provide the spark to bring this situation to any kind of crisis.

By allowing her narrator to borrow both the persona and the perspective of a character so unlike himself and be temporarily transformed, Smiley addresses many of the potential frustrations a reader might otherwise be feeling by page fifty or so. As Slater, David describes his children as unpleasant; and as a reader, there’s an unmistakable sense of relief in hearing them described that way. After all, they sound unpleasant. And though we might not want their father to tell us that they are—what kind of father would he then be?—it’s satisfying to have that impression represented somewhere in the narrative. Leah’s demands and David’s accession to them create a tension in the reader, a desire that he stand up to her, assert himself a bit. We want him to blow off a little steam. We’ve had it with his demanding children and unfaithful wife, and we’ve had it too with David the Doormat. So with a well-timed and time-limited step out of character, Smiley takes the lid off and allows some pent-up steam to escape, and this release in turn gives the reader and David both what it will take to return to the novella’s comparatively static status quo.

Of course, Smiley might just have had David tell us that one night he lost his patience with them all, finally told Leah off, snapped at Dana, sped off in the car. Because after all, this is the truth. David Hurst loses his temper, not his identity. He doesn’t become Slater; he becomes angry. But because David describes the evening as though he were possessed, we learn that when enraged, when impatient, he’s most comfortable viewing himself as being a different man.

The temporary transformation that Slater brings to David is also intimately related to the larger transformation that David resists throughout the novella. Slater is a man who has nothing left to lose because his wife, unlike David’s, has already walked out on him. By “being” Slater, David is essentially trying on the identity he most fears having foisted upon him. Much of the tension of the story revolves around David’s resistance to becoming a man who has lost his wife. The secondary character he believes has the power to turn him into that man is Dana’s purported love, the Other.

We never meet the Other. We don’t even know who he is—only that David claims to believe that he’s tied somehow to Dana’s choral group.2 The fact that he is never identified has many effects on the narration, including that for some time we’re not at all sure that he exists; yet his power to change David, to change everything, is present throughout.

David Hurst is like the child who believes that when he closes his eyes, the world disappears. “I wasn’t curious,” he says (138). But, what he seems to mean, more pressingly, is that he was terrified. And we, of course, are curious. At our safe remove as readers and not husbands, each time we feel curiosity about the Other, we feel too the strength of David’s desire to pretend he doesn’t exist and to evade the life-altering outcome that absolute knowledge of the Other might bring.

Smiley uses this discrepancy between our need to see and his not to see to create a cognitive and emotional distance—and tension—between her reader and her narrator. Importantly, this isn’t identical to the more familiar distance produced by a discrepancy in what a reader and first person narrator know or understand, but is rather produced by a discrepancy in what he and we want to know. Our narrator and we don’t share the same objective for his narrative. He is invested in what he perceives as self-protection and we only want to be told. He says and demonstrates that he isn’t curious, but we absolutely are.

To the extent that stories traditionally involve transformation, and there’s something satisfying to readers about that, David, from the beginning, is resistant to the very force that might make the story succeed on those terms. He is wholly invested in having everything stay at a comfortable status quo.

What is present in this novella throughout, is evidence that the transformative force David fears most is knowledge itself—the very thing that lost Adam and Eve Eden and lost the world its innocence when Pandora opened her box. “It was tempting,” he tells us, “very tempting, not to know what I knew, but I knew that if I relaxed, she would tell me, and then I would really know it” (152). This fear of knowledge, this fear of closing the gap on his own cognitive dissonance, informs everything about how David’s narrative is structured; and the unidentified figure of the Other stands as an embodiment of the knowledge David doesn’t want to have. That the Other is never named, never truly known, never even clearly existent until the final pages, reinforces the fact that David’s narration is, to a large degree, an extended exercise in self-delusion and obfuscation of the truth.

IV. Reflections and Echoes: Secondary Characters as Metaphor

Images, themes, relationship dynamics and even names often reappear in transfigured forms throughout “The Age of Grief” so the novella is thick with metaphoric reverberations. Among the earliest character/metaphors we meet is fellow dental student Phil Levine the house-bound man whose marriage is conducted in silence until it ends with an explosive disclosure of disloyalty. The portrait of his otherwise speechless wife who then announces that she is in love with another man is an image close to the heart of this novella, though at the time that we hear about Phil, we don’t yet know that fact. David, who does or at least who should know it, doesn’t acknowledge that, which creates a foundation for our understanding his powers of both perception and relation once the information is available to us. If he doesn’t see the relationship between Phil’s tragic storyline and his own, then his vision is sadly impaired. If he does see the relationship between what he tells us about Phil and himself and chooses not to acknowledge that, then his reliability is questionable on other grounds.

For the length of the novella, David evokes other, explicitly acknowledged metaphors, often using secondary characters to set them up. In these cases, Smiley generally leaves the secondary character unnamed.

On the first page of the novella, David tells us:

Dentists on television never have people coming in like the man who came to me today. His teeth were hurting him over the weekend, and so he went out to his toolbox and found a pliers and began to pull them out, with only some whiskey to kill the pain. . . What drove him into my office today, after fifteen years away from the dentist, was twenty-four broken teeth, some fragments below the gum line, some merely smashed around the crown (122).3

By not giving this man his own name, Smiley enables us to focus more easily on the image itself. We can blend the man’s acts and what he represents with David, the desperate, partially—but inadequately—anaesthetized man who is telling us his tale. It is a metaphor that haunts the narrative throughout, though its function for David on the one hand and the reader on the other are somewhat distinct. For David, this image is an explicit metaphoric benchmark for what is and isn’t possible in desperate times: “You could say that it is impossible for a man to pull out all his teeth with only the help of a few swallows of whiskey. Nothing is impossible” (160). But for readers the patient is also a kind of grotesque, extreme version of the man to whom we are listening.

Later, another nameless character emerges as both a compelling image that is meaningful to David and as a metaphor for David himself that he may not clearly see:

What is it possible to give? Last fall I was driving to the office in a downpour, and I saw a very fat woman cross the street in front of the bus depot and stick out her thumb? No raincoat, no umbrella. I stopped and let her in. She said she was going to Kinney, a town about ten miles east, and it occurred to me simply to drive her there. . . . She said “My husband works out there. I just got in from California, after two months, and the whole time he was sending me these postcards, saying, Come back, come back and so I bought my ticket.” She fell silent. Then she looked at me and said, “Well, I called him up to say I’d got my ticket, and he said right there, ‘Well, I want a divorce, anyway.’ So here I am. He works out there.”

I said “Maybe you can change his mind.”

“I hope so. . .” She looked at me defiantly.

I said “Why don’t I drop you at the Amoco station at the corner of Front Street? You can stand under the awning and there ought to be a lot of people turning toward Kinney there.”


After I got to the office, I thought maybe I could have bought her an umbrella, but I didn’t go out and get her one, did I?  It perplexes me, what it is possible to give a stranger, what it is possible to give a loved one, the difference between desire and need, how it is possible to divine what is helpful (187-188).

David uses this incident as a response to the question he poses: what is it possible to give? This woman exists for him as a measure of how generous one can be, much as the man on the first page of the book exists as a benchmark of how desperate one can be. But again, as readers, we inevitably see her as a metaphor for David himself. The miscommunication she has with her husband, the image of the abandoned spouse out in the elements, uncared for, unable to give up, all these features deepen the narrative precisely because they never stray far from our understanding of David’s dilemma. Smiley doesn’t waste details, even when addressing the most peripheral figures. Just like Phil Levine and his unfaithful wife, just like the man who can’t adequately anaesthetize himself, this woman too becomes a metaphoric re-figuration of David in the text. And, by not having David address the clear fact that these characters are representations of himself, Smiley accomplishes two additional goals. First, she allows readers to draw their own connections, encouraging their participation that way in the work. Second, she once again reinforces our sense that David is a man who may be either farsighted at times or myopic at others, but is rarely able to see the clearest truth.

From their earliest mention, the Hurst children take turns doubling up for one or both of their parents. Because Leah’s irrational needs and seemingly inexplicable fierce love for her father mirror the themes that arise from Dana’s adultery, her character seems to demand recognition as a symbol of one of her parents. While reading, I had the continual sense that she must in some way be playing a particular one of their roles, since in so many respects she reduplicates their quandary. The problem however, and the literary virtue as well, is that a stronger case can be made for her being a metaphoric echo of them both at once.

David introduces us to Leah, and then to his suspicions about his wife in structurally identical ways. In both instances, David uses a one, two, three formulation in which the third member of the trio is the zinger. First, this is how he introduces his children, and then it is how he tells us about those three background elements that existed during the period of Leah’s obsession with him: Dana’s choir rehearsals, the new country house they had bought and, oh yes, “[t]he third element was that Dana fell in love with one of her fellow singers, or maybe it was the musical director” (136). David mistakes foreground for background, as he often does, once again demonstrating his disinclination to see the obvious, but more relevantly here, these parallel formulations create a strong implication of a connection between the third confounding element to the Hurst’s marriage and the third likewise confounding child.

Additionally, Leah’s betrayal of Dana echoes Dana’s betrayal of David. One day, David tells us, Leah simply chose another parent to love, as Dana seems one day to have chosen another man.

Yet Leah can also be viewed as a double of David himself. Both he and she are stubbornly determined to have things the way they want them to be. She throws tantrums to get her way, while David pretends to be deaf and blind. In the end, they are equally determined to realign reality to suit their needs—and neither seems to care much about what Dana wants.

By resisting the impulse to have Leah function as a miniaturized version of either her mother or her father, Smiley makes her less of a device, less of an opportunity for Smiley to show off her own skill at creating analogies and more of a real character. We don’t have the sense that Leah is on the page to prove a literary point, though she certainly does at least her fair share of the literary work of the novella. The story, throughout, is dependent on ambiguity as one of its major energy sources, and the matter of Leah’s symbolic role in the story is a fine example of an ambiguity that never loses its relevance to the central conflict. The fact that the precise nature of that relevance is complex, rather than reductively clear, only works to maximize its power. Leah herself is an excellent argument in favor of complex secondary characters, against whom the central conflict can resonate in key, if not entirely understandable, ways.

Late in the novella, in an episode of short duration, Stephanie plays a less ambiguous role acting as a substitute for her mother. Although in what little we see of Stephanie before these late scenes, we can find some basis for associating her with Dana, these hints are so subtle as to be nearly invisible during an initial read. Stephanie is blonde, like Dana, but then one of the children was likely to be. David’s repeated assertions that Stephanie always has one foot out the door, that she “feels about kindergarten the way people used to feel about going away to college” (128), do give her a loose associative relation to her mother, whose potential departure from the home is at stake. But then at her earliest mention, Stephanie is described as their “boy,” which could make us guess that she’s most like David, except that when we first meet Dana, in dental school, she is a woman in a man’s world, a woman determined not to be seen as female in any of the stereotypical ways, and in fact in many most traditional ways is the “boy” of their marriage. In other words, though I would argue that the balance tips toward Dana throughout, the fact is that Smiley again resists sending us any overly clear signal that Stephanie should be thought of as a symbol for her mother—at least until late in the novella when the family is stricken with the flu and Stephanie is hardest hit. While Lizzie and Leah are ill in characteristically difficult ways—Lizzie vomits constantly and Leah insists on being held by David for days—Stephanie is seized with what David perceives as a life-threatening fever. For many pages, he tends her, waiting for the fever either to dip below 104, at which point he will relax, or rise above 105 at which point he will take her to the hospital. The tension that is produced in the novella by his monitoring her strongly echoes, and for some pages replaces, the tension that has been present all along as he monitors Dana but, importantly, does not seek any real information.

On a structural level, this sub-plot of Stephanie’s illness works to produce a sense of crisis, a sense that something both dramatic and relevant is happening here. The matter of Dana’s adultery remains essentially static throughout the novella and Stephanie’s illness breaks through that stasis, as did David’s assumption of Slater’s identity. But again, as with David’s “becoming” Slater, this crisis is not the one the book seems to need in order to reach its own end. It is a displacement of David’s marital concerns and when the flu leaves Stephanie’s body, it briefly leaves behind it the illusion that the status quo of “normal” life has been maintained:

I went into the living room and lay down on the couch. I looked at my watch. It read 12:25. After a moment I looked at it again. It read 5:12. It was not wrong. . . . Dana appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands on a towel, then smiled and said, “You’re awake.”

“I’m resurrected. Are you sure I was breathing all this time?”

“We had a nice day.”

“How do you feel?”

“Back to normal.”

“How normal?”

“I’m making fried chicken.”

“Mashed potatoes?”

“Cream gravy, green beans, browned almonds, romaine lettuce.”

“The Joe McManus blue-plate special.”…

…And then it was Friday, everyone in school, day care, work, all support services functioning, the routine as smooth as stainless steel. I was thirty-five, which is young these days, resilient, vital, glad to be in the office, glad to see Laura and Dave, glad to drill and fill and hold x-rays up to the light (208-209).

Much as Smiley earlier used Leah’s inappropriate desire for her father’s undivided attentions as a substitute for introducing the central conflict of the book, here, she uses Stephanie’s recovery as a false resolution. Everything is back to normal, we’re told—as if that central conflict itself has ceased to exist.

V. Whose Ending Is This, Anyway? Saying Goodbye to the Supporting Cast

As it is no small task to introduce so large an array of players, it’s also not clear when or how to allow each to depart from the book.

Smiley says goodbye to the office staff by using them, in the final few pages, to pull in the same two directions in which the novella pulls throughout: both toward and away from David’s beloved status quo. During the period of the false resolution that follows the family’s recovery from flu, David gives us one last overview of his office life:

As soon as the embryo can hear, what it hears is the music of the mother’s body—the lub-dup of her heart, the riffle of blood surging in her arteries, the slosh of amniotic fluids. What sound, so close up, does the stomach make, the esophagus? . . . Toward the end of pregnancy, when the pelvis loosens, is there a groan of protest from the bony plates? Maybe it is such sounds that I am recalling when I sit on my chair with the door to the office half closed and feel that rush of pleasure hearing the conversations in the hall, or in Dana’s office. Delilah’s voice swells: “And then they—” It fades. Dave: “But if you—” Dana: “Tomorrow we had better—” The simplest words, words without content, the body of the office surging and creaking. Dana’s heels, click, click, the hydraulic hum of her dental chair rising. In my office, I am that embryo for a second, eyes bulging, mouth open, little hand raised, little fingers spread. I have been so reduced by the danger of the last few weeks that the light shines through me. Does the embryo feel embryonic doubt and then, like me, feel himself nestling into those sounds, that giant heart, carrying with him beat by confident beat into the future—waltz, fox-trot, march, jig, largo, adagio, allegro? (209-210)

The use of present tense to describe something from the past is unique in the novella to this passage, and reinforces the impression that David is trying, with all his rhetorical might, to prevent change. The office staff members here are essential elements of the womb that David seeks. Fittingly, though, the office, the womb that cannot last, is also where David first learns that Dana has left. There is no further communication between David and Dana during that night and no word of her whereabouts until the following day:

Dave caught my eye involuntarily as I opened the door, and shrugged. At eleven the phone rang, and then Dave came into my examination room between patients and said, “She cancelled again.” I nodded and straightened the instruments on my tray. At two, my last patient failed to show, and I went home to clean up for the girls (212).

The last act we see David Hurst perform in his office is straightening his tools—as he cannot straighten his life. The last patient who is mentioned is one who fails to appear. At the end of the novella, all glimmers of comedy are gone from the office environment and all actions seem sad. The characters no longer stand in any contrast to the central story or central tone. David’s grief has found him there, where he can no longer hide, embryonic and unaware. Smiley closes our relationship to the secondary office characters with a distinct, simultaneous closure of that gap.

In preparing for Leah’s ‘goodbye,’ Smiley actually does some of the work not at the end but very early on:  “I wish that Leah’s state of mind weren’t so unavailable to us all, including herself, because she is driving us crazy” (129). David tells us this as he introduces his daughters, and the use of present tense here—she is driving them crazy still, even as he recounts the story to us—cues us very early to the fact that the Leah storyline will not be resolved by the end of this tale; and indeed it never is. By the end of the book, when David tells us that “[i]t seems to me that marriage is a small container, after all, barely large enough to hold some children. Two inner lives, two lifelong meditations of whatever complexity, burst out of it and out of it, cracking it, deforming it” (213) we understand that in part the container he and Dana share is challenged still by Leah’s unmanageable loves.

In the final pages of the novella, when David must contend with the absence of his wife from his home, he must also decide what to share with his children:

She was not at home at seven, when we sat down to eat our meat and potatoes. Lizzie said, “Where’s Mommy?”

I said, “I don’t know,” and they all looked at me, even Leah. I repeated, “I don’t know,” and they looked at their dinners, and one by one they made up their minds to eat, anyway, and I did, too, without prying into the mystery, without taking any position at all (211).

The children here, in their last “in scene” appearance, provide yet another opportunity for us to take measure of David’s resistance to knowledge. With their questions, they challenge David to explain something about their mother’s absence. With his admission to ignorance, he further defines himself as someone who chooses not to know, who prefers to proceed “without prying into the mystery.” A bit later, at the girls’ very last mention in the novella, they provide a further narrative anchor against the changes that knowledge might bring. The penultimate paragraph of the novella, the paragraph that follows David’s characteristic request to Dana that they not discuss her adultery for a while, and that precedes David’s ruminations on the nature of marriage, consists of a single sentence: “The big girls would be home in forty minutes” (213). Even as the Hursts enact the scene that most threatens the underpinnings of their home, even as David can no longer pretend to ignorance about his wife’s disloyalty, the clock of normalcy is running, unstoppable inside his head. Smiley uses the children here, in the final moments, to remind us of how precious to David that normalcy is, how much ballast it continually provides in the face of any change. Focusing on the clock as his wife admits to adultery is in essence the same act David performs when he straightens his dental tools after the receptionist Dave tells him Dana has cancelled her patients again. It is a reenactment of a dozen such acts that David has performed. In their last moments in the novella, the children, like the office staff members, continue to provide us with more and still more understanding of the tension that is central to David’s heart and his narrative, both.

Harper Perennial 1997 (1996)


While at work on this essay, I read Doris Lessing’s novel Love, Again, and a short passage leapt out at me. The novel concerns a group of associates who are staging a play. As rehearsals progress, dynamics on the stage begin to change:

In this last week something new happened. The main characters. . . were not starkly set in scene after scene showing confrontations, mostly two by two, but were absorbed into a setting of minor characters who, hardly noticed during the first weeks of rehearsals, now showed how much they determined destinies. As in life (Lessing 121).

In the past, I have avoided secondary characters, fearing irrelevance and distraction from the central conflict. But Smiley demonstrates what Lessing so eloquently describes: no matter how peripheral a character or how close to the story’s center, if treated with generosity, that figure will often reciprocate in kind.

1 A version of this essay was first composed in 2004 under the generous supervision of Kevin McIlvoy, as a component of my MFA degree at Warren Wilson College.
2 Despite this claim of David’s, the novella is mined with hints that Dan, the Hurst’s pediatrician, may be Dana’s lover, or at least that that suspicion may be hovering at the edges of David’s consciousness. The many effects of those hints form too vast a topic for treatment in this essay, but I highly recommend that anyone reading “The Age of Grief” track the evidence and consider how that evidence reflects on David’s reliability as a narrator.
3 It is worth noting that this passage, in addition to providing the text with a governing metaphor, also provides our earliest hint about the temporal narrative stance. There is a specific time from which the story is being told, a today, and by the first page of the novella we are oriented to that fact.

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Andrew Scott March 26, 2012 at 6:50 pm

This is a wise and wonderful essay, Robin. Thanks for including the notes at the end — this has the feel of one of those classic Warren Wilson craft lectures, and I planned to ask about that.


Robin Black March 27, 2012 at 4:47 pm

Thanks so much, Andrew! That’s a mighty nice thing to say. Glad you liked it.


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