Essays

Sheila and Schwartz: The Nuances of Personal Independence

Mavis Gallant’s introduction to Home Truths quotes Boris Pasternak: “Only personal independence matters” (xi). The importance of personal independence is a driving theme in Morley Callaghan’s “One Spring Night” and “A Wedding Dress,” which respectively explores opposite ends of romantic relationships: young Sheila is on her first date with Bob, while the aging Miss Schwartz is finally getting married to Sam after fifteen years of engagement. By its very definition, a relationship is the antithesis of independence—a problem that becomes increasingly evident for Sheila and Schwartz. Callaghan does not simply examine female independence within personal relationships, but situates it within the greater patriarchal context. Even when the characters achieve personal independence, they discover themselves to still be alienated and subject to an institutional dependence. While “One Spring Night” and “A Wedding Dress” delve into the same ideas, their endings are markedly different, though both bittersweet. Sheila escapes Bob, but is still alienated and subject to an institutional dependence. Schwartz gets her wedding dress, but she has to be rescued by Sam. Callaghan is able to capture the nuances of female personal independence through Sheila and Schwartz—there are no easy aphorism provided like Pasternak.

Immediately, both Sheila and Schwartz are identified as a passive and female minority under a patriarchal majority. For Sheila, this disenfranchisement is based on familial lines. She is the outsider who can only “listen when [Bob] talks with her brother and father in the evenings” (Callaghan, “One Spring Night” 149). For Schwartz, it is more economic and social, being “the only woman among seven men boarders” (Callaghan, “A Wedding Dress” 12). Mrs. McNab, although a female character, is a patriarchal figure, as she “did not want women boarders; the house might get a bad reputation” (Callaghan, “A Wedding Dress” 12).

Unsurprisingly, both Sheila and Schwartz are dependent on their respective male counterparts. In the beginning, both texts are written largely with the men as the focus: what Bob and Sam want, and how Sheila and Schwartz can accomplish it. Indeed, Sheila’s primary goal seems to be Bob’s satisfaction with her. “Almost pleading, she said, ‘Are you having a good time, Bob? Don’t you like the streets at night, when there’s hardly anybody on them?’” (Callaghan, “One Spring Night” 149) Sheila’s emphasis on the emptiness on the street is interesting—she is effectively trying to bind herself and Bob as one unit. Sheila sees submission to Bob as a means of self-identity. This manifests physically in the way she clutches him, “leaning on his arm in this new way” (Callaghan, “One Spring Night” 149). A similar reliance is found in Schwartz, “marrying Sam would be a matter of course” (Callaghan, “A Wedding Dress” 13). Schwartz’s relationship with Sam also had an economic context. Schwartz quits her job when Sam is able to provide for her. She believes this is freedom, but this freedom does not stem from independence but rather a relationship. Schwartz’s obsession with the wedding dress is hence structured on this economic line pointing towards Sam: “She never paid so much for a dress, but Sam liked something fancy” (Callaghan, “A Wedding Dress” 14).

This feminine passivity and dependence is necessarily sexualized—Sheila and Schwartz must make themselves appealing to the men. In “A Wedding Dress,” Callaghan uses the young girl at the store to explore the paradox of female sexuality, at once empowering and oppressive. The young girl represents a new modernity and promiscuity, where independence is feminized and sexualized: “young and fair-headed and saucy looking; she made Miss Schwartz uncomfortable” (Callaghan, “A Wedding Dress” 14). This young girl acts as a catalyst, literally pointing Schwartz towards the dress and metaphorically towards Schwartz’s sexuality. Schwartz’s theft of the dress perfectly captures the dilemma of female sexuality: “She imagined herself wantonly attracted in the dress, slyly watched by men with bold thoughts as she walked down the street with Sam, who would be nervously excited when he drew her into some corner” (Callaghan, “A Wedding Dress” 14). The theft can be interpreted as an act of independence with Schwartz seeking to control her sexuality, but it is ultimately still for her relationship with Sam.

Sheila’s kiss with Bob is much less nuanced. Sheila, because of her youth and sexual inexperience, is completely passive and compliant. Unsurprisingly, Bob is the one who kisses Sheila, “and when she didn’t resist he kept on kissing her. Then they walked on again happily” (Callaghan, “One Spring Night” 150). While Schwartz actively seeks to enhance her sexuality for Sam, Sheila simply submits to Bob. Nonetheless, in both instances, the woman is completely dependent.

Both Schwartz and Sheila begin to feel—but cannot yet articulate—their ultimate alienation as a result of their lack of self-identity or personal independence. “On the streetcar [Miss Schwartz] started to cry because Sam seemed to have become something remote, drifting away from her.” (Callaghan, “A Wedding Dress” 15). Schwartz realizes that Sam is independent from her, but that she is completely dependent on him. Sheila’s purposelessness manifests physically, “for a long time, they walked on aimlessly like this before he noticed that she was limping” (Callaghan, “One Spring Night” 150). Crucially, Callaghan writes in the third person from Bob’s perspective. As a result, Sheila’s thoughts are obscured here—indeed, although Sheila is beginning to understand her dependence and resulting self-alienation, she cannot yet articulate it. Instead, Sheila explicitly fears for her reputation: “What will they say when I go home at this hour?” (Callaghan, “One Spring Night” 151) Bob implies that Sheila’s has no independence, that she is merely an extension of her father: “There’s the friendliest feeling in the world between your people and me” (Callaghan, “One Spring Night” 152). Callaghan masterfully plays with the hidden tensions underneath the surface. The subtext, which neither Sheila nor Bob are willing to voice or admit, is the unequal relationship of dependence between the two of them as individuals. “He was anxious to make it an argument between them over her father” (Callaghan, “One Spring Night” 152). The growing rift in their relationship is reflected physically: “he dared not tighten his arm around her” (Callaghan, “One Spring Night” 153). Sheila resorts to a passive resistance, acting like an automaton.

While Sheila seeks to escape Bob, Schwartz seeks to cement her decision, “she went straight upstairs and put on the dress as fast as she could, to feel that it belonged to her” (Callaghan, “A Wedding Dress” 15). Yet the end result is the same: Schwartz is robbed of all autonomy, reverting to an almost naturalistic state. While Schwartz would like the dress to represent her independent act and sexual power, it really represents her economic and social shackles. Upon being arrested, Schwartz can only repeat her programmed motive, “We were going to be married. Sam liked a body to look real nice. He always said so” (Callaghan, “A Wedding Dress” 17). Callaghan portrays the justice and judicial systems as patriarchal. The police and court officials are all men. Mr. Staples plays a similar role in “One Spring Night.” In both texts, the primary authority figure is male, placing the responsibility in gender relations squarely on the man: the judge places Schwartz’s responsibility on Sam; Mr. Staples places Sheila’s responsibility on Bob. Both the court and Mr. Staples remove volition from the women.

The endings of the two texts are markedly different. “A Wedding Dress” ends with Sam rescuing Schwartz, with the two of them to be wed. Yet it might seem that Schwartz’s iron will has succeeded: “It was to be her wedding dress” (Callaghan, “A Wedding Dress” 18). Sheila, on the other hand, openly asks Bob to leave: “Why don’t you go? Why do you want to sit there talking, talking, talking?” (Callaghan, “One Spring Night” 155) Sheila emphasizes Bob’s “talking” through tripling as a means of control. She sees his rationalization as a means of marginalizing her.

While this essay has focused on the female protagonists, “One Spring Night” closes on Bob, alone. With echoes of Orpheus, Callaghan paints Bob as desperately wanting: “he longed to look back at her, and when she did not call out to him as he went, he was full of a wild resentment” (“One Spring Night” 155). The power relation is subverted: Bob cannot handle true self-independence, without anyone depending on him. “Inside him was a wide, frightening emptiness. He wanted to reach out desperately and hold that swift, ardent, yielding joy that had been so close to him” (Callaghan, “One Spring Night 155). Bob finally understands the dependence that Sheila feels. A brief analysis of Sam is also useful: when Sam shows up, he appears to be incredibly passive and undemanding. The primary difference between Bob and Sam is presence. Bob is constantly there, imposing his will and view. Sam is absent—it is only Schwartz’s expectations of him that drives her actions.

Callaghan offers no easy answers regarding personal independence. Sheila is still living underneath her father, while Bob seems to consider personal independence for the first time; Schwartz and Sam get married, but she does not appear to have changed. But the characters have changed, perhaps imperceptibly, and have reached some deeper understanding of themselves and their personal independence in the greater context. Callaghan does not quite reach the same definitiveness as Pasternak. Personal independence is important, yes, but it is far more nuanced. Sheila and Schwartz are fully realized and multi-dimensional characters, who defy aphorisms.

 

Works Cited

Callaghan, Morley. “A Wedding Dress.” Ancient Lineage and Other Stories. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2012. 12-17. Print.

—. “One Spring Night.” Ancient Lineage and Other Stories. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2012. 148-156. Print.

Gallant, Mavis. “An Introduction.” Home Truths. Toronto: Macmillan, 1981. xi-xxii. Print.

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