The William Trevor Reader: “The General’s Day”

October 12, 2021 | 2 3 min read

The titular general in “The General’s Day” is General Suffolk, an elderly bachelor and hero of the Great War. We follow him on his also titular day: contentiously greeting his housekeeper Mrs. Hinch; walking to the village cafe and talking to his friend Basil; trying to recruit another elderly friend from his house for day-drinking; day-drinking by himself and then with a woman he meets; sexually harassing her and driving her away; drinking more at night; getting into a screaming fight with his elderly friend upon a second visit to said friend’s house; stopping at Mrs. Hinch’s house blind-drunk and being helped home by the lady (who steals money from his wallet in a little bathetic grace note). The title itself is also wryly bathetic in Trevor’s preferred naming style, which is to say, naming the story for the exact thing it’s about.

The story is also representative of the Trevor oeuvre in its subject, which is to say—as I touched on in my write-up of “A Meeting in Middle Age”—diminishment. It is actually a bit unusual in the sense that General Suffolk has actually achieved some stature in his lifetime, a height from which to fall; the average Trevor protagonist has been too hamstrung, by class or disposition or religion or general circumstances, to achieve very much. Further, the General—unlike many Trevor principals—is not unaware of the ways time has reduced him. This, from his morning walk into town:

‘I walked entranced,’ intoned the General, ‘through a land of morn. The sun in wondrous excess of light…’ He was seventy-eight: his memory faltered over the quotation. His stick, weapon of his irritation, thrashed through the campions, covering the road with broken blooms. Grasshoppers clicked; bees darted, paused, humming in the light, silent in labour. The road was brown with dust, dry and hot in the sunlight. It was a day, thought the General, to be successfully in love; and he mourned that the ecstasy of love on a hot summer’s day was so far behind him. Not that he had gone without it; which gave him his yardstick and saddened him the more.

The hinge on which the story swings is not, as in “Access to the Children,” a character’s obliviousness to their condition; it is, instead, a tonal shift. The General essentially travels from tragic to comic character in the course of his day, in our eyes, if not in his drunken ones. He understands his diminishment, his fall from commander of men and great lover of women to solitary bachelor whose main source of companionship is his cleaning woman. But this fall at least is tinged with the grandness of tragedy. And so, even as he mildly deludes himself as to the possibility of friendship or carnal bliss, he can at least experience his old age as a kind of noble coda to a life full of the genuine articles. The events of the day shift our view of the General’s life from tragedy to comedy and finally to farce, the farce of drunkenness and old age summed up by the devastating last line: “… and leaning on the arm of this stout woman, the hero of Rouex and Monchy-le-Preux stumbled the last few yards to his cottage.” The tragic fall becomes a slip on the banana peel.

One minor, but noteworthy craft aspect of this story is the way, toward the end, Trevor very lightly occupies the mind of Mrs. Hinch, in order to reveal her delight at the General’s drunkenness, the way episodes like this will keep him in her debt, and her in his employ. Trevor is the master of this move—I had read “Access to the Children” many times without registering the way, for a few devastating beats, he switches to the wife’s perspective. Flitting between character consciousnesses is generally inadvisable, something I tend to warn students against, as it is difficult enough in short story writing to create a unitary narrative consciousness and tone without roping in other characters. But Mrs. Hinch’s point of view is important: the narrative tables have turned, and we now understand that the lowly cleaning lady looks down on her great employer as a risible old fool to be manipulated. Furthermore, the narrative move makes a kind of perspectival sense as General Suffolk has drunk himself into oblivion, clearing a space for another consciousness as the focal point.

More on point-of-view shifts next week, as we look at “Memories of Youghal.” Thanks for reading!

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

2 comments:

  1. Other aspects that bring home the General’s diminishment is when we realize he *knows* the untrustworthiness of Mrs. Hinch (her “breakage” of his china, his time-check call), his encroaching forgetfulness (Hobson is Mrs. Hinch’s bird not a person), and his failed attempts at trying “his hand in many directions” since retirement.

    I didn’t really understand the running horoscope gag. It seemed entirely out-of-character for Suffolk.

  2. I have just picked up the very same collection of Trevor’s stories, so will enjoy reading along and checking in with your thoughts. Good luck!
    BTW It was the long short story / short novella (?) Matilda’s England, which was published as part of Penguin’s 60s miniatures series, that got me hooked.

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