By Amanda Sirois
for the course Introduction to College English
Instructor: Gina Granter
Culpability in “Dead Girls”
In Nancy Lee’s “Dead Girls,” the reader is introduced to an anguished woman who is both a mother and a wife. As the story progresses, the reader learns that the mother’s depression is caused by the evanescence of her daughter, a young girl who has been missing for over a year. Though there have been brief telephone calls between the daughter and her parents during the daughter’s period of absence, even the sporadic phone calls have ceased. The lack of communication between the mother and Clare, her daughter, evidently has a serious impact on all of the mother’s relations: she resents her husband because he does not understand her grief and she spends her days in a living room, alone, with neither friends nor solace. Unable to cope with the mysterious downfall of her daughter, the mother lapses into a torrent of guilt and forces herself to remain in a constant state of suffering. Through the narrative point of view and flashbacks, the author expresses the theme: isolation of one’s suffering leads to severe feelings of culpability, resentment, and the destruction of relationships.
The narration of the story, told in the second person, offers tremendous insight. The simple use of the word “you” demonstrates the extent to which the melancholic mother blames herself for the derailment of her daughter: she no longer views herself as a respectable person (282). She has dehumanized herself in a desperate attempt to cope with her tribulation. Consequently, the mother inadvertently facilitates the action of accusing herself for her daughter’s wrong-doings, as expressed when she states, “You have sifted through memories and household items often, looked for signs of it all beginning…You cannot pinpoint the event that pushed [Clare] from childhood to adulthood” (286-7). The melancholic mother blames herself for not seeing the indications of derailment in time to save Clare from a life of tragedy, though she does all she can to correct Clare’s delinquent behavior, such as paying for her daughter’s treatment in a rehabilitation centre, and even comforting Clare in her times of need, such as during the aftermath of a “bad date” when the mother holds Clare while the young girl bleeds and vomits (288). Not only does the mother condemn herself for being a neglectful parent, she also resorts to penalization: she forces herself to watch morbid news broadcasts about the atrocities happening to young girls of approximately Clare’s age. For example, the mother watches coverage of a mass grave of young female prostitutes who were murdered by a retired dentist in order to show herself the possible repercussions of her failures as a parent and, if one of the bodies is Clare’s, to seek closure. Another punishment occurs in the form of her marriage: instead of leaving the husband who does not understand her suffering, a husband she can no longer communicate with, she forces herself to live under the same roof because “it is far better punishment to stay together” (286). The mother believes she does not deserve the respite that living separately will offer.
By integrating flashbacks into the story, the author characterizes the mother as a woman who refuses to express her emotions in important situations. When Clare decides to leave the rehabilitation centre because she believes she does not have enough freedom, the mother tells her that she understands and conceals her own feeling of “a small stab in [her] chest as if someone had slid a safety pin” through her heart (290). The mother’s inability to express her true emotions leads to the profound resentment she feels toward herself, which blinds her to the truth of her daughter’s manipulative and inconsiderate nature. This is demonstrated after Clare calls her parents for help and lures them away from their home, when the young girl breaks into her parents’ house and steals money and a small television. Furthermore, the lack of communication between the mother and her husband causes a great rift between them. They no longer understand each other; each one’s grief is viewed as “something foreign and solitary,” or a mental wall that cannot be breached by either party (285). Consequently, the isolation in each one’s sorrow encourages feelings of outrage, impatience, and intolerance. For instance, when the mother finds her husband recording their financial accounts in a ledger, she views it as a sign of indifference toward the family’s deterioration. The husband’s calculations are his own way of coping with his pain and suffering, yet the mother is too focused on her own anguish to notice her husband’s contrition, and the husband is too immersed in his own misery to acknowledge the pain his wife is feeling. However, once the mother decides to follow a prostitute who resembles her daughter and witnesses the young female pleasuring a male companion, she comes to terms with the harsh truth that her daughter is not the little, sweet, ideal girl she once was. Instead, her daughter has become a prostitute and a drug addict who resents the lack of freedom her parents provide. Clare will never want to go home. This realization, once discussed with her husband, leads to a renewed connection between husband and wife: both are now able to understand the other’s distress and help each other cope with the loss of a daughter.
Conclusively, the consequences of suppressed suffering are explored through the mother’s guilt and the interaction between the mother and her husband. The isolation of the mother’s pain initially blinds her to her daughter’s own responsibilities, which causes the mother to feel as if her daughter’s failures rest entirely upon her shoulders. Furthermore, the mother’s marriage becomes a source of penance, a way for her to punish herself for being an inadequate parent. However, once the mother realizes that her daughter will never come home, she begins to cope with her pain by relinquishing some of her culpability and reconnecting with her husband: the married couple can finally begin to mend a broken marriage.
Lee, Nancy. “Dead Girls.” The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories. Urquhart, Jane, ed. London: Penguin, 2007. 282-290. Print.