Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"The Seirenes Will Sing His Mind Away": Andre Dubus's "The Curse."

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"The Seirenes Will Sing His Mind Away": Andre Dubus's "The Curse."

Article excerpt

Square in your ship's path are Seirenes, crying beauty to bewitch men coasting by; woe to the innocent who hears that sound! He will not see his lady nor his children in joy, crowding about him home from sea; the Seirenes will sing his mind away on their sweet meadow lolling. There are bones of dead men rotting in a pile beside them and flayed skins shrivel around the spot. Horner, The Odyssey, Book 12

To primitive sensibilities the woman becomes doubly sinister in the presence of the bloody manifestations of her womanhood. Contact with her during menstruation is fatal: men lose their strength, the pastures wither away, the fisherman and the huntsman take nothing. Karen Horney, "The Dread of Woman" (135)

... the specter of impotence always shadows the warrior. He must constantly prove he is powerful by his willingness to do and endure violence. Sam Keen, "The Rite of War and the Warrior Psyche"

Like so many of the short stories and essays of Andre Dubus, "The Curse" concerns itself with questions about the nature of action, inaction and manhood. The story may be read as documenting the plight of a good man, a caring man, who wants to intervene when five motorcyclists, drinking in the bar where he works as bartender, force a woman to the floor and rape her; under constant guard by at least one of the cyclists, the man can do nothing to stop the rape. This reading sympathizes with Mitchell Hayes as he struggles with the gap he perceives between "does nothing" and "can do nothing"; it highlights Mitchell's feelings of personal loss and guilt white providing what should be an unassailable rationale for his non-intervention; and it asks us to reasses those cultural codes that insist that for a man to be a man, he must act - no matter what the cost. But "The Curse" is more equivocal than this reading suggests; various narrative features - a preoccupation with negation and differentiation, a pattern of subtle emasculinization in the interactions of women with men, and an idiosyncratic use of metonyms - push beyond the liberal reading cited above, offering us, instead, both a text and a male character obsessed with the desire for integrity and wholeness, a desire that both text and character attempt to realize in a reactionary representation of the female as wounded, castrated, and, even more frightening, castrating.

One of the most striking features of "The Curse" is its insistent use of negatives and qualifiers. Dubus introduces this feature in the story's first few sentences, which are shaped by the words "but" and "not":

Mitchell Hayes was forty-nine years old, but when the cops left him in the bar with Bob, the manager, he felt much older. He did not know what it was like to be very old, a shrunken and wrinkled man, but he assumed it was like this@ fatigue beyond relieving by rest, by sleep. He also was not a small man@ his weight moved up and down in the hundred and seventies and he was five feet and ten inches tall. But now his body seemed short and thin.(273)

The story begins with a factual assertion (Mitchell's age), only to challenge that assertion as it insists that Mitchell Hayes feels much older than his years. It offers us two further bits of factual information (Mitchell's weight and height) but dismisses these as well ("now his body seemed short and thin"). This pattern of assertion and denial @which recurs throughout the story) puts us on notice that we are entering a story in which precise discriminations, maintained according to a bipolar logic that opposes presence to absence, are important. Simultaneously, this pattern blurs the discriminations it has been at pains to draw, giving us a curiously doubled and contrary portrait of Mitchell Hayes: he is tall, large, and middle-aged, at the same time he is short, thin, and old. Just as the jury in a court of law hears and remembers various inadmissible comments despite the judge's dictum that the jury strike such comments from their minds, readers of "The Curse" hear and remember that Hayes is both shrunken and wrinkled and that he is not. …

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