Tuesday of this week I went to the monthly meeting of a local Great Books Foundation discussion group. I’ve been going off and on, but fairly regularly, for a couple years now. If you didn’t know, the Great Books Foundation is an outfit in Chicago whose mission is to “help people think and share ideas.” Their website is here if you’re interested in learning more about them. (This is not a personal endorsement of the organization, I’m just sharing the info ) They publish anthologies of significant works or selections from the same. The group I’ve been participating in has been working its way through the Foundation’s “Short Story Omnibus” (how appropriate for me, huh?) for quite awhile now. The stories have been great and the discussions enriching. This month we read Donald Hall’s story “Argument and Persuasion.” I own the story as part of his story collection, Willow Temple.
The story has a unique construction, beginning with little more than an outline of a tragic story of a woman’s death. Knowing nothing about this story going in, I remember thinking, ’this is a weird way to choose to write a short story.’ Soon the reader learns that this is a story within a story, though, and the real story is about an English Professor who teaches composition and he’s telling his class the story outline as part of an exercise in writing “argument and persuasion.”
I thought it might be fun to just share with you the story outline and pose the same question to you that he poses to his class, after which I’ll wait a few days before sharing more about the short story in the comments, okay? Here goes:
“A husband and wife named Raoul and Marie lived in a house beside a river next to a forest. One afternoon Raoul told Marie that he had to travel to Paris overnight on business. As soon as he left, Marie paid the Ferryman one franc to row her across the river to the house of her lover Pierre. Marie and Pierre made love all night. Just before dawn, Marie dressed to go home, to be sure that she arrived before Raoul returned. When she reached the Ferryman, she discovered that she had neglected to bring a second franc for her return journey. She asked the Ferryman to trust her; she would pay him back. He refused: A rule is a rule, he said.
If she walked north by the river she could cross it on a bridge, but between the bridge and her house a Murderer lived in the forest and killed anybody who entered. So Marie returned to Pierre’s house to wake him and borrow a franc. She found the door locked; she banged on it; she shouted as loud as she could; she threw pebbles against Pierre’s bedroom windows. Pierre awoke hearing her but he was tired and did not want to get out of bed. “Women!” he thought. “Once you give in, they take advantage of you…” Pierre went back to sleep.
Marie returned to the Ferryman: She would give him ten francs by midmorning. He refused to break the rules of his job; they told him cash only; he did what they told him… Marie returned to Pierre, with the same lack of result, as the sun started to rise.
Desperate, she ran north along the riverbank, crossed the bridge and entered the Murderer’s forest…”
SO… The professor’s question is: ”Which of the characters in this story is morally most responsible for Marie’s death?”
What do you think? Please leave a comment and let me know. (The professor tells his classes that there is no right or wrong answer and that this is merely a writing exercise.) Go!
The professor also notes that the story is supposedly an anecdote that writer Albert Camus (pictured below, from Wikipedia) liked to tell, asking people, “Who is to blame?”