Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Creative Prejudice in Ann Petry's 'Miss Muriel.'

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Creative Prejudice in Ann Petry's 'Miss Muriel.'

Article excerpt

In Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971), Ann Petry reveals her continuing fascination with the way people are shaped by the company they keep. Although these stories were originally published over a long period of time (from the 1940s to 1971) they cohere geographically and thematically.(1) All of the works take place in New York or New England, and, while taking up a multiplicity of perspectives, they share a preoccupation with race, gender, and class, among other characteristics that often incite prejudice. But Petry's stories, like her novels (The Street, 1946; Country Place, 1947; and The Narrows, 1953), refuse to settle for easy truths. They do not moralize, and they do not avoid showing minority characters who inflict pain as well as suffer from it. For Petry, prejudice in all its permutations is finally a creative as well as destructive force. In Miss Muriel, individuals, their relationships with others, and their communities are clearly formed by human bias, not just harmed by it.

Three of the collection's 13 stories are set in and around a drugstore in the fictional village of Wheeling, New York. The Wheeling drugstore stories - "Miss Muriel," "The New Mirror," and "Has Anybody Seen Miss Dora Dean?" - draw on Petry's experience as an African American growing up in the small resort town of Old Saybrook, Connecticut.(2) There is a great deal of realistic description of Wheeling's shops, streets, and geographic location, and the family that appears in these stories has much in common with Petry's own. The stories, like the town they portray, are multifaceted and defy easy categorization.

The 57-page title story is the collection's longest, and it introduces the volume's wide-angle focus on prejudice. First published in 1963, "Miss Muriel" concerns prejudice in a small community, but it is not limited to one particular strand of human bias. Instead, the story illustrates how numerous prejudices - of race, gender, sexual orientation, and age, to name a few coexist and paradoxically create the very community that they threaten to destroy.

For the narrator of this complicated tale, Petry makes a seemingly ingenuous selection: a 12-year-old girl. Like Petry (born in 1908), the narrator grows up in the early twentieth century, the daughter of middle-class African American parents who run the local pharmacy. There, the girl overhears conversations that fuel her imagination and influence her notions of adulthood. Also like Petry, whose novels make frequent use of multiple perspectives, this character is acutely aware of people's shifting attitudes toward each other. Petry does more than draw on her own background and personality, however. Through the persona of a 12-year-old, she succeeds in defamiliarizing adult biases and assumptions. In "Miss Muriel," the grownups appear enigmatic, comical, evasive, defensive, and flawed. We begin to see that their (or, more precisely, our) assumptions about each other do not have fixed boundaries; prejudice is rarely a clear-cut matter of sexism, racism, or any other "ism."

Although "Miss Muriel" is never explicitly identified as a diary, the story takes that form in its loosely episodic, ostensibly artless progression. Like a diarist, the narrator records events shortly after they happen. This format creates a compelling immediacy and accommodates the speaker's struggle to understand the nuances of her own story. When her young, beautiful aunt, who lives with the family, becomes the object of male attention, the narrator can neither forestall nor fully comprehend the conflicts at work within her community, her family, and herself. She can almost (but not quite) see the convoluted interactions among her family members and acquaintances as a forewarning of what her own future holds.

On the verge of adolescence, the narrator is understandably fascinated by her aunt's love life. She takes an active interest in Sophronia's three suitors, Mr. Bemish, Chink Johnson, and Dottic Smith. …

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