Rather coincidentally, the story’s title “Adventure” is similar to the last Library of America piece I read, Helen Keller’s “I go adventuring”. Each, however, uses the notion of “adventure” rather differently. Keller talks about physical adventuring, that is, travelling in New York as a deafblind person, though she also talks about what this adventuring means to her emotionally or spiritually. For one, it provides her with “the comforting certainty that mankind is real flesh and that I myself am not a dream”. Regarding Anderson’s use of the word though, LOA’s notes quote scholar Ray Lewis White, who says that “adventure” means ““the one brief moment, the one epiphany, the one telling instant, that captures and communicates the essence of that character’s personality, leaving nothing more to be said or learned about him or her.” The story which is specifically titled “Adventure” is apparently placed slap bang in the middle of the collection – and, yes, there is an epiphany.
It tells the story of Alice, who is twenty-seven years old. Although on the surface she is “very quiet”, “beneath a placid exterior a continual ferment went on”. This ferment has its origins in a love affair with a town journalist when she was sixteen. She loses her virginity, after sincere promises from the man, Ned, that he would come back for her. He says, “Now we will have to stick to each other, whatever happens we will have to do that”. But of course, as happens with these things, Ned’s life doesn’t go quite as he planned. After a year, he has met other girls and stops writing to Alice. However, she, “the girl who had been loved”, continues to believe and hope that Ned will return.
By her early twenties, she is still waiting. She does not blame Ned for her loss of virginity. Indeed she’d offered to go away with him, unmarried, back then when she was sixteen, but she also feels unable to marry another man because “the thought of giving to another what she still felt could belong only to Ned seemed monstrous”. Alice, then, is not your “typical” shrinking small town girl done wrong. She’d offered to go away with him, but she’s also a product of her time’s attitudes regarding sex being a gift to the one you love and, of course, of her continuing love for this man:
“I am his wife and shall remain his wife whether he comes back or not”, she whispered to herself, and for all of her willingness to support herself could not have understood the growing modern idea of a woman’s owning herself and giving and taking for her own ends in life.
I’m not an expert in early post-World War One America, and I haven’t read the whole book, but I can’t help thinking that Anderson reflects here, in a story published in 1919, the modernist concern with conformist society. He certainly presents a fairly bleak view of what is possible for humans in constricting social environments, as did the “names” of the modernist movement.
Alice – I wonder if there’s an ironic reference in use of this name – continues to hope, she saves money for her future life with Ned for a few years until, one day
With a shiver of dread, she realized that for her the beauty and freshness of youth had passed. For the first time she felt that she had been cheated. She did not blame Ned Currie and did not know what to blame. Sadness swept over her. Dropping to her knees, she tried to pray, but instead of prayers words of protest came to her lips. “It is not going to come to me. I will never find happiness. Why do I tell myself lies?” she cried, and an odd sense of relief came with this, her first bold attempt to face the fear that had become a part of her everyday life.
And so, she continues on, trying “to get a new hold upon life”. She spends companionable time for a while with a much older man, realising she doesn’t want him but is avoiding being alone, because “if I am not careful I will grow unaccustomed to being with people”. And then comes the adventure … in which Alice’s bravery and desire to live life to the full results in a moment of abandon that paradoxically forces her to confront the reality of her situation. It’s a devastating (though not tragic in the usual meaning of the word) conclusion. Read it, and see what I mean.
I really liked this story. I liked the way Anderson presents Alice’s self-awareness, and her little attempts to break free, while at the same time recognising the reality for women like her at that time.
First published: In Winesburg, Ohio: A group of tales of Ohio small town life, 1919.
Available: Online at the Library of America