Discussing Mary Gaitskill’s “The Little Boy”

My sophomores are in the midst of a short unit in which we are reading some contemporary short stories. Last night they read Mary Gaitskill’s “The Little Boy” (anthologized in The O. Henry Prize Stories from 2008). This story is a lot different from the two previous stories we read (Roddy Doyle’s “Black Hoodie” and Steven Millhauser’s “A Change in Fashion”). It is a meticulously crafted reflection on an elderly woman’s life. Our narrator, Bea Davis, reminisces as she moves through an airport, and little by little, the secrets of her life are revealed. It’s a wonderful story to analyze with students since close reading gradually yields a web of clues that come together to add up to a fuller picture of Bea Davis.

The central conflict of the story exists within Bea. She still loves her deceased husband, Mac, whom she divorced after her daughters were grown, and her daughters don’t understand why. Ultimately, she still loves him because their love was strong and true, despite his abusiveness and rage. He cheated on Bea, too; he was out with another woman when Bea was giving birth to their first child. But life is complicated, as my student Sara explained, and Bea recognizes this. Her daughters can’t understand why Bea could be so affected by Mac’s death. She “had nothing but contempt” for him, her eldest daughter chides her. But real adult relationships, Bea understands, are not so simple.

The part of the story that works well for me, but less successfully for my students, is the motif of The Mikado.  Bea replays in her mind songs from the show, which her daughters performed in a neighbor’s garage when they were little. I’m a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and I know The Mikado well, so I can see the author at work using the show symbolically. The Mikado is a show full of lies and (hilarious) deceit, and Mac’s life was full of deceit, too. He clumsily carried on his affair, but the truth was found in the unsent love letters he wrote. His ex-wife and daughters discovered them when they cleaned out his house after his death. The story also references the beautiful song, “The Sun Whose Rays are all Ablaze,” which was sung by one of Bea’s daughters. The memory of her beautiful daughter singing that song as a child (off-key) contrasts with the challenging adults her daughters have grown to be.

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