One of the fun things about this exercise is noticing patterns among stories, themes, and otherwise that begin to pop up. “The Original Sins of Edward Tripp” features a similar set-up as “The Penthouse Apartment,” only with the protagonists switched. Where the main character in “The Penthouse Apartment,” Miss Winton, is an elderly woman forced to endure the ravings of younger man, here the main character is an unbalanced man raving at a helpless elderly woman.
Edward Tripp lives with his sister in the same apartment they grew up in decades earlier. She is mentally ill, obsessed with imaginary murders occurring on their street, and he is in turn ridden with guilt for the small tortures he inflicted on her during their childhood, convinced he is responsible for her state. When his sister becomes convinced that elderly Mrs. Benton has been murdered, Edward is obliged to cross the road and talk to the woman. Invited into the apartment, he drinks sherry and confesses his sins to Mrs. Benton in an increasingly aggressive manner, until she manages to get him to leave. He returns home fantasizing about his sister’s death.
Leaving aside the aspect of elderliness, we have seen several stories already in which the main character, at the climax of the story, speechifies or otherwise unloads on another character who does not want to hear it: “A Meeting in Middle Age,” “The Table,” “The Penthouse Apartment,” among others, and many more to come. Where does William Trevor’s interest in this particular plot arrangement come from?
These moments are speech actions, externalizations of the deeply buried psychological mechanisms that trap these characters in their lives—that, in fact, define their lives. Most of these characters are deeply isolated, resigned to whatever mode of living they’ve found workable or at least endurable. But in Trevor’s world there is never really any hope of change, of meaningful action—when a character is driven to voice their suffering, it serves, not as catharsis, but almost the opposite. It gives a name to what they hold inside, the thing oppressing them, and giving it a name does not begin the process of healing, as it does in the modern therapeutic sense. Rather, it admits, describes, ratifies the thing that is true, the thing that has been true and will continue being true, the thing they have managed to either ignore or contain by not speaking of out loud.
These moments arguably create character change, but only in the sense that the last scales must fall from the character’s eyes, leaving them truly without hope.
Or perhaps the scales have already fallen and what’s lost is simply dignity. The dignity of silence—the only kind of self-esteem available to a person without recourse. A person may accept their suffering, but in not speaking of it still exert a kind of control, if only in its external manifestation. In “The Original Sins of Edward Tripp,” Edward Tripp is described as notorious in the neighborhood; later, he describes himself to Mrs. Benton as notorious. The first description comes from Tripp, from his self-knowledge, but it is a kind of diffuse, narratived self-knowledge, tinged with potential irony. The second description also comes from Tripp, but it is explicit, a confession, an owning of the thing he already knows or “knows.” We go through our lives with many of our worse qualities in these brackets and scare-quotes, aware ourselves from a communal, social perspective, and yet strangely isolated from the stark truth of the matter. Trevor, like most great short story writers, is a sadist at heart, and he delights in these moments, in stealing even the thin comfort of silence from his unhappy characters.
Next time around: “The Forty-Seventh Saturday.”