‘The Pilgrimage’ by William Maxwell: Short Story Analysis
‘The Pilgrimage’ is a satirical modernist short story by American writer William Maxwell (better known in the USA as William Keepers Maxwell Jr.). This short story was penned by Maxwell in the year 1953 and satirized the way American tourists usually behave when they go on a holiday to a foreign locale, especially Europe. William Maxwell was an American editor, novelist, short story writer, essayist, children’s author, and memoirist. He served as a fiction editor at The New Yorker and passed away in the year 2000. He is better known today for his literary work than when he was living. ‘The Pilgrimage’ is the story of how Ray and Ellen Ormsby go on a holiday to France. They have been advised to try a particular restaurant in Perigueux called ‘Hotel du Domino’ by their American friends Jerry and Anne Richardson. Both couples are respectable people who love to gormandize. Ray takes the Richardsons’ advice so seriously that he suddenly had a delusion that there would be truffles in the ice-cream basket at Domino. Ellen tries to correct his delusion but is unable to do so. The couple goes on a mad goose chase as they seek those truffle ice-cream balls in a basket, something which did not exist.
Those of you who don’t know what truffles are, well truffles are a strong-smelling underground fungus that resembles an irregular, rough-skinned potato, growing chiefly in broadleaved woodland on calcareous soils. It is considered a culinary delicacy and found mainly in France. They are used as a soft sweet, made of a chocolate mixture, typically flavored with rum and covered with cocoa. It is very delicious and appetizing. Since Ray and Ellen were going to France, they decided to visit the Domino restaurant to eat these ice-cream balls in a truffle basket. Ellen seems to be the passive of the two while Ray appears to be a determined individual, decent as a husband, but very fastidious in some issues. He is the typical patriarch in this relationship, always managing to get his way, and Ellen has to follow along with him. So, they arrive at the Domino hotel. Ellen is tired and famished after a whole day of traveling in their car. Ray is all set for his truffles, as by now, the only thought in his head is that the restaurant serves everything with truffles. When the couple enters the restaurant section of the hotel to eat, Ray is despondent with the restaurant’s different look. It looked nothing like what his friends the Richardsons’ had described, and rather than a restaurant, it looked more like a coffee café. Ellen is in the mood for roast chicken with truffles. She is also puzzled by the restaurant’s odd look but is happy enough that they at least had a place to stay for the night and eat. Ray, however, was not pleased with the situation. When he realizes that there are no ice-cream truffles on the menu, he makes his wife leave the restaurant. He is by now under another notion that the nearby restaurant called the Montaigne must be having the truffles ice-cream that he is so desperate to eat. Ellen being the passive woman she is, allows herself to be dragged away to the Montaigne for something she is well aware of does not exist.
Ellen seems like a person who likes to indulge her husband. Later, she even seems to be proud of him because he was a pusher and enjoyed getting his way when others in the same predicament would give up. Ray is the real American who likes to push onward to get their way in the world. However, the story titled ‘The Pilgrimage’ doesn’t relish (pardon the pun, but it was intended) Ray’s perseverance. Maxwell seems to be mocking the quintessential twentieth-century American couple who most probably were from the middle-class and wanting the maximum benefit for their money. Ray doesn’t want to spend a fortune over dinner at Domino if he doesn’t get truffles for his ice-cream and everything else he wants to eat there. Since there are no truffles in the way he had imagined, he scampers off to the Montaigne with Ellen, his wife. When they reach the Montaigne, the ground floor seems worse than the Domino, in the sense that it looks more like a bar than a restaurant. Ellen is travel fatigued, but fastidious and determined middle-class Ray selfishly drags his wife up the stairs to the restaurant above Montaigne’s ground floor. There they realize there is no ice-cream with truffles either. There isn’t even any chicken being served in the restaurant, which Ellen wanted so badly. It is only then that Ray realized what a heel he had been and took Ellen back to the Domino.
The typical middle-class way of using one’s money usefully, along with a satirical account about Ray’s and Ellen’s chase for the truffles, makes the reader smile. Ray and Ellen maybe middle class, but they love to eat, which is highlighted throughout the story. For Ray, the journey to Perigueux was a pilgrimage to the land of truffle and double or triple truffle. Hence, we get the title of the short story, which is very misleading. It conjures up in our minds images of religious places of pilgrimage, but we could be no further from the truth if we think of it in that manner. Ray was on a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage for his appetite. The idea of a decent couple who otherwise are so sensible making a fool of themselves in France among waiters, waitresses, concierges, maître d’hôtel, et al. make us laugh heartily. When we see Ellen and Ray later being given the stepmotherly treatment at the Domino restaurant for running away, it reminds us of how important etiquette is, especially in stylish places like restaurants, and cafes. That is why I prefer to be away from the world and read, write, and teach in solitude. I have been in solitary confinement in my home reading books even before something known as COVID-19. If you want to know more about me, you can check out my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. It will be worth your while; it is the memoir of my life in books and with books. You can check it out on the products page of my blog or Amazon.
So, Ray and Ellen return to the Domino and are poorly treated by the staff. Certain portions of the story are humorous, like when Ellen and Ray first enter the restaurant at Domino and Ray feels that the décor of the place was fit enough to commit suicide. Also, that particular portion where the maître d’hôtel presumes that when Ray and Ellen are obsessively talking about truffles, they spoke not about ice-cream but omelet. But the story is more about the magnificent luxurious life of the privileged in France. It’s about people like Ray and Ellen who think they are better off than the French. They believe Perigueux to be a simple place where people ate simple food, danced in public, and hardly saw any movies. They are proven wrong only when movies are concerned in this story, but they are wrong in all aspects. Ray and Ellen are the privileged class, the ‘haves’ and not the ‘have-nots’ that most of the time incur the hatred of those with no means to visit foreign locales, know how to speak French fluently, and have fun. However, if you want to read a story that talks about the realities of life, check out the book review on this blog of a very moving tale titled 13 Years: A Naxalite’s Prison Diary by Ramchandra Singh. It will tell you about some people who are not as fortunate as Ray and Ellen because of their economic class and caste in Indian society. Do check out the review for your reference.
Ray and Ellen do not get to eat what they want. They go to bed that night of the ‘search for the ice-cream basket truffles’ thinking they were far superior to the French when they were just simple fools who live in an ivory tower of their own. However, they do get to dance at the annual fair at Perigueux, which brings a happy ending to their evening. They will surely go home thinking about the simpleness of the French. If Ellen could have been a little more vocal and proactive, she would have managed to convince Ray to eat at one’s convenience rather than waste time and hurt others’ feelings.
I enjoyed analyzing this short story for you. I have an extensive collection of William Maxwell’s works in my office-cum-writing hut, which I will read and review on this blog. I hope to read and analyze more short stories by American writers in the coming days. I want to focus mainly on American writers to celebrate the rich literary heritage we have received from the stalwart American writers and literary figures past and present.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out my blog or Amazon’s products page. There is a lot of good stuff to buy. Happy reading to you always!
Copyright © 2020 Fiza Pathan