‘Love’ by William Maxwell: Short Story Analysis
‘Love’ is a simple story of a fifth-grade classroom full of boys who were in love with their pretty teacher. However, the poor teacher met with a very tragic end; she died of tuberculosis. It is a short story by American writer William Maxwell, the fiction editor at The New Yorker. He passed away in the year 2000. He edited the work of many reputed writers and wrote many of his own that usually fall in the genre of domestic realism. ‘Love’ is the story of a pretty teacher Miss Vera Brown. She has a simple name, is single, and very young. She is likable but formal in her manner and has a unique and kind way of handling young boys’ affections. She treats her students with respect. Sadly, she died alone, with only two people, her aunt, and uncle to care for her. The author and his friend Benny, cycle to her home to inquire after her health. She doesn’t receive them well (pardon the pun), and they, too, are more afraid of catching tuberculosis than wondering whether their young teacher would survive.
The title of this short story is ‘Love’ indicative of the simple infatuation young schoolboys have towards a friendly, good-natured, and very bright teacher. They gift her symbols of their devotion and affection like apples for her table and purple asters for her vase. She accepts them graciously, without overdoing it. She is undoubtedly a woman who knows how to behave in front of children. She set an excellent example of female dignity and never liked punishing her boys nor kept them after class for detention. She understood the pulse of her students. She had a bright future in front of her. Sadly, she contracted dreaded tuberculosis and wasted way towards her death. This part of the story could be highly autobiographical because Maxwell lost his mother when she was very young. After his mother’s death, he too, like Vera, had to go and live with an aunt and uncle.
Well, Maxwell flourished, but Vera was dying day by day. When healthy, she was the very image of dignity and perfection, especially in the eyes of her students. The boy students wanted her to remain their teacher right till the higher classes. We see a shift of focus in the attention of Vera. Earlier she was consumed by love for her job, her students, her work, and other intellectual pursuits. After contracting tuberculosis, she was ‘consumed’ by the illness literally and metaphorically. Not only was she dying because of consumption, but she had lost the will to live. She had entered the nether region of her mind, the area between life and death, and even the arrival of her two students did not cheer her up.
She died young, at 23 years of age, when young girls would be thinking of marriage. However, Miss Vera was an independent single woman of grit who knew how to take care of herself. She kept up her dignity even when dying. She never let her guard down.
Maxwell remembered his teacher with a lot of fondness, though he quickly took leave of her when he realized she was dying of consumption. He and his friend Benny made sure they did not touch anything while at their teacher’s bed and then made off quickly like bolts of lightning, which proves that they were not totally in love with their teacher. After her death, whenever the author visited the graveyard, he would see Miss Vera’s aunt tending to her niece’s grave. Just like Miss Vera used to fill her vases with fresh water for the flowers gifted to her regularly by her students, even the aunt used to do the same. She used to empty the flask full of grimy water and then refill it with fresh water, and place it near the grave with fresh flowers. This death directly or indirectly made a lasting impression on Maxwell, which he carried with him to adulthood. There are many Miss Veras who go on to live in the minds of boys as the epitome of boyhood innocence. They rarely forget these first love impressions and then look out for these same signs in the women they court as adults. What is stunning about the story is how the boys wormed out from their teacher her birthday and then did the following:
- They presented her with a flower box full of sweet peas, one of the most fragrant flowers imaginable.
- They gifted it to her with a card with the names of all the fifth-grade students.
- They took her to a movie which was ‘Hearts of the World’ by D. W. Griffith.
‘Hearts of the World’, also known as Love’s Struggle, was a 1918 American World War I silent propaganda film written, produced, and directed by D. W. Griffith. It was something that boys liked to see. Miss Vera was daring and gracious enough to accept their invitation. She was quite bold to do so. Now such outings with young teachers are not looked upon favorably.
Miss Vera was a person who never ridiculed a child. She gave everyone a chance to answer questions and have a say in a class discussion. If someone did not know an answer, Miss Vera would explain it herself or get another enthusiastic student to reveal the answer to the one who did not know it. This showed that she tried to instill her pupils with confidence in their abilities and rationalizing faculties. There is a mention in the story that she taught mathematics, but it is highly likely she taught all subjects because that was the norm. They rarely had different teachers for subjects.
When the two boys, Maxwell and Benny, were cycling to their teacher’s place, Maxwell mentions a barn where a circus poster had been glued. The weathering of the sign over the months could be symbolic of the consumption that was wearing away his teacher, and the war which was exhausting everyone along with the economy.
I thoroughly enjoyed reviewing this short story by William Maxwell. He is an excellent writer and has contributed a lot to American writing as we know it today. He was an exemplary editor and writer. I hope to read and analyze more works by him soon.
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