READING ELIZABETH HAY’S “THE FRIEND”

by Esmé Hogeveen

For this month’s edition of Reading Alone Together, I spoke with Frances Platt Law about “The Friend,” a short story by Canadian author Elizabeth Hay. Less than ten pages, “The Friend” is both vivid and fleeting. It is narrated through the first-person perspective of Beth, who spends the story reflecting upon the intensity of her friendship (or former friendship, depending on how you interpret the story) with Maureen. The two women meet as adults, each with a husband and children, but they experience the kind of instant chemistry that reminds them of girlhood friendships. The demands of adulthood, however, weigh heavily on their intimacy, and “The Friend” recounts how the women’s relationship both blossoms and decays.

About Frances Marley Platt Law:

Occupation: Student of English and Early Modern Studies at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Favourite childhood book: The Flower-Fairy Treasury.

Favourite place to read: In the sunlight.

Author you wish more people knew about because she/he is really great: I wish that more people knew about J.P. Jacobsen or had actually read Anais Nin’s works (because everyone knows about her, but her writing is really incredible).

Esmé: In some ways, “The Friend” can be interpreted as Beth’s attempt to come to terms with her and Maureen’s relationship. Do you agree that the story can be read as Beth’s attempt to “solve” Maureen?

Frances: My initial response is that I don’t read “The Friend” as a “working through” or figuring out Maureen, so much as I read it as an honest portrait of a relationship. I think the portrait is complete, in that Beth comes to some sort of conclusion about the relationship, and about friendship in general. The way Beth leaves things unexplained feels honest, and integral to her understanding of Maureen, and the time in their lives which the story reflects on.

E: Do you think Hay successfully represents the way friends use their accumulated knowledge of each other as a form of conquest or control?

F: This question is crazy! It may sound naive, but I had never before thought about just how much knowledge friends accumulate of one another! I think it’s fascinating to try to locate the point at which a friendship spoils, like a too-ripe fruit, which reminds me of the apricot image [at one point, Beth describes Maureen’s nipples as being like apricots]. Or is it some sort of added, corrosive ingredient, like competition or compulsion? Or falsehood? I think that these factors are all present in “The Friend.” On one level, it seems like Beth knows too much about Maureen. And yet they need one another. I think this need is what consumes and ruins their relationship.

E: Do you think Beth is a good friend to Maureen?

F: This is such a tricky question. What is a “good friend”? Yikes. I think that Beth is as good as she can be. She endures Maureen gracefully. And I believe that Beth sincerely wants to help Maureen, but that their relationship gets too heavy and stagnant for Beth (the apricot imagery again!). But I also don’t think that a good friendship is predicated on a desire to help the other person. Rather, I think it’s something simpler, like enjoying each other’s company. Otherwise friendships risk becoming soteriological!* That kind of motivation seems to corrupt a friendship, at least within this story. It’s almost as though the Beth and Maureen’s relationship is too serious for something as lighthearted as friendship. An unsustainable weight.

*I looked up “soteriological” because I had never come across it before. The OED defines it as deriving from the Greek word for preservation or salvation.

E: The beginning of Beth and Maureen’s friendship appears, at least superficially, to have the intensity of a relationship between schoolgirls. Beth claims that when they met, “the friendship began with…an understanding that goes without saying” (239). What do you make of this idea of falling into friendship and of Beth’s representation of the friendship’s origins?

F: This “understanding that goes without saying” is curious to me (239). I’ve experienced it before, as I’m sure most people have, and I wonder whether it is circumstantial; it certainly doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels like it will last forever, like a little girl’s friendship bracelet. I remember in the last edition of Reading Alone Together, you spoke about how we’re socialized to believe that friendships can go on forever. I think that this illusion is strongest during adolescence, despite how destructive some friendships can be at that age. In Hay’s story, I think that the immediacy and intensity of Beth and Maureen’s connection is worrisome It reveals their loneliness and frustration, their readiness to escape into one another. This escape is not, and cannot, be permanent.

E: Do you see any connections between Beth’s role as Maureen’s confidante and Henry’s role as Danny’s “mentor”?

F: What connects Beth and Henry is what they can offer to the other characters. With Henry, Danny can be honest about his sexuality. I think that Beth provides the same kind of relief for Maureen.

E: We’ve talked before about how friendship is a unique relationship because it does not necessarily build towards any formal affirmation (as opposed to a romantic relationship, where there are clear steps towards bond forming or breaking, or a familial relationship, where there is a pre-existent framework for the relationship to depend on). Do you think Hay’s story shows an arc of self-awareness within a friendship, with the characters learning about the effects of friendship on themselves?

F: “The Friend” shows us Beth’s arc of self-awareness. As for Maureen, neither Beth nor the reader knows enough about her to answer that question. That being said, I think that Hay’s choice to narrate from Beth’s perspective conveys an arc of self-awareness better than if she had used a third-person narrator. Hay’s story is faithful to the waves of disillusionment that hit friends at different times: one person in gray, and the other is in colour. It’s heart wrenching.

This question makes me think of the final scene in the story, the last time that Beth and Maureen see each other. Hay writes,

We stood in the subway station–one in a black-and-white dress, the other in a warm jacket–one hurt and pale, the other triumphant in the indifference which had taken so long to acquire. We appeared to be friends. But a close observer would have seen how static we were, rooted in a  determination not to have a scene, not to allow the other to cause hurt. Standing, waiting for my train to come in. (247)

 This scene speaks for itself.

E: What did you make of the moments of physical attentiveness in the story? For example, at one point, Beth recalls, “All weekend I picked [Maureen’s] long hairs off my daughter’s sweater and off my own” (242).

F: Here’s the note of the erotic! Considering the frank intimacy of the way Maureen discusses sex with Beth, you’d be surprised if it didn’t occur somewhere in their relationship. This aspect of the story really interests me. In general, I think that close friendships are often coloured with an underlying sensuality, ranging from emotional fondness expressing itself physically, to a “what-if.” The indefiniteness of friendship contributes to this air, and as you said, friendship requires no “formal affirmation.”

E: What did you make of the title “The Friend”?

F: What to make of the definite article! It universalizes this shitty relationship, for one! I think that the title contributes to my understanding of the piece as complete–and I think Hay intended that. It’s an evocative title, for sure. It asks so many questions of the piece. I like this passage in relation to the title: “I saw the landscape of friendship. I saw Sunday at four in the afternoon. I saw childhood panic. People looked familiar to me, yet they didn’t say hello. I saw two people I hadn’t seen in fifteen years, one seated in a restaurant, the other skating by. I looked at them keenly, waiting for recognition to burst upon them, but it didn’t” (246-247).

E: In an earlier conversation, you brought up the layers of storytelling in “The Friend.” I was struck by your comment that although the story is narrated by Beth, the real storyteller is Maureen. We also spoke about the way in which the women’s friendship forms a foundation for conversation between the married couples in the story. How important do you think memoir and storytelling are in “The Friend”?

F: During that same conversation, we spoke about the ways in which friendship is the construction of a mutually inhabited world. I think that this idea is central to Maureen and Beth’s relationship. When Hay describes their friendship as “a throwback to girlhood … a friend with whom you can talk about anything,” it reminded me of all the imaginary games I played with my friends as a girl, all our rambling, make-believe conversations (241). I think this association resonates with the story. Maureen escapes her life by narrating it to Beth and by re-imagining the everyday through her friend’s concern and admiration.

I was struck by the moment when Maureen tells Beth about Danny’s infidelity, and Beth reflects, “[Maureen] laughed–giddy–flushed–excited–and eager, it seemed, to console herself with the thought that she had impressed me” (242). That, to me, sums up the role of storytelling in Maureen and Beth’s friendship.

E: You also brought up the intrusion of two seemingly unconnected passages into the story. The first of these is the scene where Beth thinks, “I saw [Maureen] go up in flames or did I wish it?” (240). The second is when Maureen recalls an unspecified time when “I thought it was someone come to visit. But…I realized it was ice falling. At midday, icicles fall from the eavestrough into the deep snow below” (243). What are your thoughts about these vignettes? Is the elemental contrast between fire and ice important?

F: I love the “elemental contrast”! When I first read the fire scene, I thought that Beth, knowing so much about Maureen, was experiencing a deeper plane of her reality–the Truth of Maureen’s existence in the home. Now I wonder whether it was a projected desire on the part of either Beth or Maureen.

As for the icicle scene, it is one of the two moments in the story when Beth is alone. I think that Hay shows us Beth’s solitude in this scene, shows us the life that Beth leads without Maureen. Perhaps this is Hay showing the reader the underlying motivation behind the friendship: to find warmth.

Beth grimly reflects on the detritus of her own life, the everyday details in their bleakness: “And the floor which I am sweeping for crumbs? There are no crumbs” (243). It also resonates with the final scene in the story, when Maureen’s jaw shakes from the cold. It feels trite to say something like the “coldness of solitude,” but that’s what I’m thinking here.

The elemental contrast is poignant. The fire is destructive, consuming, but at least it is warm and alive.

E: Lastly, the vignette which begins with the description of the falling icicles ends with Beth musing:

          During the eclipse last month I saw Maureen when I saw the moon. I saw my thumb inch across her pale white face.

 I have no regrets about this. But I have many thoughts. (243)

What is going on here? Do you think we, as readers, get a glimpse of the depth of significance each woman has had on the other’s life? Or is Hay gesturing towards the way in which friendships become mythologized?

F: The fact that the icicle scene culminates in this celestial symbol of femininity fascinates me. I think the juxtaposition conveys Maureen’s role in Beth’s life: the enlivening flare of a story. And the fact that it’s an “eclipse” is very powerful. Maureen eclipsing Beth’s existence–and then Beth, covering the moon with her thumb. Their friendship began with Maureen creating a mythology to escape from her reality, and ends with Beth writing the story “The Friend.”

Page numbers refer to the copy of “The Friend” found in the anthology edited by Jane Urquhart, The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories (2007).

 

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