Pity and Shame by Ursula K. LeGuin

Litmag number 47.7, says the random number generator: it’s Tin House. Only one fiction is made available online to non-subscribers, so that’s my story for today: “Pity and Shame,” by Ursula K. LeGuin. It’s a pity and a shame, for me anyway, that I won’t be able to let her know I’ve posted something about her story. Or maybe the pity and shame would be mine if she did know.

She was 88 when she died in January. Wikipedia says she was in the same high school class as Philip K. Dick, but they didn’t know each other. Dick died 36 years ago. She’d quit writing fiction, then she wrote a very short story and then this longer one, and then she died. Reading the story, I find myself distracted by the concern of whether I can identify what’s great about the writing. More accurately, I wonder whether I’d be able to identify this story as the work of a recognizedly great writer. I’ve read only one of her novels, of which I remember nothing at all, and none of her short stories or essays, so I certainly wouldn’t be able to recognize in this piece the distinctly LeGuinian touch. It’s a plain-spoken story, no flashy language or complicated ideas, quiet, personable, homespun, convalescent. There’s stateliness and grace, a meandering pace that wanders a bit but always finds its way home.  But enough of that: performing a review, offering and justifying an opinion regarding merit and style and pleasure afforded isn’t what I’m about here. I’m looking for some other sort of engagement.

The intertextual references are to William Cowper, the Book of Numbers, and Charles Dickens. Pity and shame: old-fashioned sentiments. The tale unfolds on the quiet edge of a California gold rush town; life is hardscrabble, precarious, serious, the characters old beyond their young years. Touching and mournful: that’s the emotional register I experience reading the story. Though the bed-bound patient is on the mend, though the caregiver’s life too is on the upswing, though the two of them may well form a life together, their story feels elegiac. Is it that the events unfold generations ago, with even the youngest and most promising long since dead? Is it the author, an old woman remembering with fondness and sorrow an earlier self that held so much promise, when convalescence presaged restored vigor rather than decline unto death? Is it me?

Hatred and vengeance. That register seems out of place in this story, present only in its absence, displaced by duty and perseverance, maybe even by love and forgiveness. But right from the beginning that other, darker register makes its presence known. Hard lot! the text begins: encompass’d with a thousand dangers; Weary, faint, trembling with a thousand terrors; I’m called, if vanquish’d, to receive a sentence worse than Abiram’s. It’s the fourth stanza of a poem by William Cowper: “Lines Written During a Period of Insanity,” is the title attributed to it in LeGuin’s story, but the poem is more frequently named by its first line: Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion. The poem’s last line: I, fed with judgment, in a fleshly tomb, am buried above ground. 

The convalescent’s name too is William Cowper, gravely injured in a gold mine cave-in: buried under the ground, not above it, staring at the black rectangle that had been the opening but blocked now with debris. Still, in his concussed delirium he continues to think of himself as the subject of the poem, buried in the fleshly tomb of his own stove-in body.

A sentence worse than Abiram’s? Rae the nursemaid reads the relevant Biblical passage to the convalescent and his physician:

And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab: which said, We will not come up: Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, except thou make thyself altogether a prince over us? Moreover thou hast not brought us into a land that floweth with milk and honey, or given us inheritance of fields and vineyards: wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? we will not come up. And Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood in the door of their tents, and their wives, and their sons, and their little children. And Moses said, Hereby ye shall know that the Lord hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind. If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men; then the Lord hath not sent me. But if the Lord make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the Lord. And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them: And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation. And all Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them: for they said, Lest the earth swallow us up also.

Do the three of them interpret the passage from Numbers 15, link it back to the Cowper poem, explore the theme of hatred and vengeance and its relevance to their lives?

“I’ll go finish the wash,” Rae said, and slipped out, leaving the Bible on the side table. A black rectangle. Cowper shut his eyes and tried to breathe.


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