Week Three: Liphook group, January 2016
On The Communist
by Richard Ford
I was moved by this story but somehow I don’t know quite how or why. It gave me several things to puzzle over. Here are some of them.
· Communist. Is this a name he gives himself, or that others give him? In what sense is he a communist? Communism doesn’t sit easily with shooting ducks (though perhaps it does with ‘poaching’). Nor does it sit well with expensive cars like the ‘Nash’. We get a sense of Ben as a sort of hippie but getting too old for the role - outside mainstream society, getting and spending as best he can. Perhaps this is connected to his time in Vietnam? He mentions shooting animals in Vietnam and Les speculates that he’d been thrown out for something he did there (again the assumption he’s an outsider). Being a communist? But he has been a trade unionist (‘labour man’) like Les’s father, and seems to believe in revolution against the rich. He says
“. . . the country was poisoned by the rich and strong men would need to bring it to life again.”
Or is his insecure life-style the result of his being known as a communist? And also of being unable to adjust after Vietnam? Again there’s a possibility that behind the individual character of Ben lies the paradox in communism – as it has so far been attempted – that an ideal ‘natural’ beauty of life somehow seems to end in even greater ugliness and death.
· At the beginning of the story Aileen is on her own, and we’re not told what’s happened to Ben. When he suddenly turns up she’s annoyed. Perhaps she’s holding on to the remains of the quarrel which made him go? Or angry at his leaving her? She tries, in a very assertive way, to stop Ben taking Les shooting. But Les doesn’t allow himself to be dominated. Perhaps Ben’s doing this to ingratiate himself in some way, at least with Les, who ‘likes’ him but not that much. Then she turns up and goes with them, but then rather sulkily stays in the car, then joins them again, then tries to make Ben show affection and/or susceptibility to her charms, by killing the wounded duck. Which leads him to self-assertion and to withdraw his feelings, perhaps because he can’t deal with tenderness, and then do what she asked - but cruelly. What is the matter with Aileen? Is the point that she feels that can’t trust Ben to stick by her now she’s thirty-two and looking perhaps for a fixed relationship? The point of her embarrassing question to Ben at the end about her femininity is to do with that perhaps, ‘left on the shelf’. There’s just a hint that this whole story is about to be replayed with a new ‘Ben’. We doubt if she’s really going to college – a gesture towards greater independence, perhaps.
· Les doesn’t seem to have strong feelings about either Aileen or Ben, and you get the sense that his feelings, whatever they are, are not such as he can express, but can embed in this story. The story is his feelings. He mentions his age, and at the end how almost a life time has gone by. He’s now roughly the age Ben was then. The moment of intimacy when his mother asks him about her attractiveness is not repeated, and almost as an afterthought he says: “and I have not heard her voice now in a long, long time.” This suggests at first that he’s left home, and perhaps he has. In the story he’d thought about what she’d do when he did leave home. But it just leaves open another, additional, meaning that he’s no longer able to respond to her feelings.
· The ducks and the hunting. The story was written in 1985, and so might well be drawing on a reader’s possible revulsion. Why not just enjoy the beauty? Why do you have to kill it? Or is the killing a kind of selfie, a proof of how beautiful the ducks were by making one of them, though still and dead, mine? This collision of the themes of love, fatherliness, and killing, needs more thought. In one sense, of course, it’s good old conservative ‘manliness’, the male asserting his powers - originally , in the anthropological sense of feeding the family, surviving? Here, the vision of the ducks spread out like that, does have the momentarily unifying effect that sharing a moment a beauty. And perhaps there’s a parallel between the hunting, capturing, scene, and the personal relations involved. Ben wants to capture that beauty in some way. He can’t just ‘stand and stare’ in wonder. (I remember, much less dramatically, as a small boy taking birds’ eggs from the nests and being stirred by their beauty and otherness while shutting out thoughts of stealing, cruelty, killing.) Or perhaps for some reason he feels he must ‘stamp out’ such moments by killing them, as if he’s guilty of something unmanly.
· The one person Les mentions with affection is his father, and the loss of his father is perhaps the ‘engine’ of this story. The story as a whole made me think about the general problem of fatherless (or motherless) children and step fathers/mothers. This is made a problem, it seems to me, when the mother or father left is self-centred, perhaps, or dependent in one way or another on a partner. There’s always, also, the sense that many children will have of the dead father or mother being irreplaceable like a ‘first love’, a kind of exclusiveness that makes it difficult to have or accept new relationships. And then there are the ‘coping mechanisms’ people adopt, denying their feelings, loosing the capacity to feel, trust, let go, and so on. Les seems to cope by not allowing himself to have much in the way of feelings at all. Much of this is connected with fear, and fear perhaps with loss of love and so of self.