In February of 2010, I posted a brief summary and discussion of Dorothy Parker’s classic short story, You Were Perfectly Fine.
When I first made the post, I had no idea how popular that blog would be. It’s hard to tell, based on the two comments that follow that post, but that particular blog article is consistently listed as among the most viewed post on my site, based on the WordPress tally of pages visited. Internet readers find their way to my blog on a regular basis by searching for details about that story on Google or Yahoo or Bing.
I also use this story as one of the assigned readings for my Fiction Writing Basics classes. It is a short, easy read, but it is also the kind of story that unfolds with many layers of subtlety and it always elicits strong discussion. When we discussed this story in our MFA program, it was one piece that those of us in the program would sit around and discuss for hours and hours.
Ultimately, that is what we want to learn from a story like this: How do we spur readers on to discuss and consider our stories after they are done reading them. It is one thing to have a reader walk away from our story and think, “Well, that was nice, or different, or interesting.” It is quite another to leave the reader not only with the satisfaction or reading a well-crafted story, but also continuing to think about what they read and what it might really mean.
You Were Perfectly Fine encourages a deeper reading, while also being quite fun to “just read.”
If you haven’t read the story, you can find a brief summary and some initial discussion below, which is a reprint of my initial blog post. Over the coming days, I’ll be posting additional thoughts about the story from some of my writer friends. I hope you find this to be an interesting and useful exercise.
Using the humor of two perspectives works well in this classic story by Dorothy Parker:
The “pale young man” (Peter) and the clear-eyed girl are recovering from a party where the young man was drunk and made quite a spectacle. He’s worried he’s been too over the top, she tries to reassure him.
“You were fine,” she said. “Don’t be so foolish about it. Everybody was crazy about you. The maitre d’hotel was a little worried because you wouldn’t stop singing, but he really didn’t mind…”
She tells him of his singing, and claiming the waiter was his long lost brother stolen by gypsies, and insulting a man’s tie. He fell on the ice, but she tries to reassure him it wasn’t because he was drunk, it was just icy. Anyone could have fallen. They then took a “lovely long ride” in a taxi where Peter shows her his “true” self. A side she hasn’t seen before.
“You said such lovely, lovely things,” she said. “And I’d never known, all this time, how you had been feeling about me, and I’d never dared to let you see how I felt about you. And then last night—oh, Peter dear, I think that taxi ride was the most important thing that ever happened to us in our lives.”
Peter has obviously said more than he meant to say and the girl has taken his drunken confessions to heart. She’s smitten and is holding him to the declarations of affection that he can’t even remember.
You Were Perfectly Fine is a simple tale of two people who are completely out of sync, but either not aware of it (in the girl’s case) or not quite sure how to get out of it (in Peter’s case).
Peter is a drunk, and when he’s drunk, he does and says things which he does not remember and does not–when sober–mean. He isn’t sure exactly what he said to her, but as the story goes on, it becomes clear that his words have had a great impact on her. She is planning a future for the two of them, even though we get the idea that Peter does not think of her in such a grand, long-term manner.
The girl attempts to justify all of his drunken actions because she must also justify Peter’s confession of love for her. She works very hard to make his drunken singing, stumbling, arguing, and general asinine behavior seem “not so bad” because if everything else he did while drunk was an embarrassment and a mistake, then his words of love were, as well–something the girl cannot bear to think about.
(There is an argument to be made that the flighty girl knows exactly what she is doing; she knows that Peter’s profession of love was made under duress, but she’s going to ride it out as far as she can. She wants Peter even if he’s sort of “tricked” or bullied in to wanting her as well…I tend to lean toward the “justify his behavior in order to make his love real” scenario, but the nice thing about this story is that it leaves room for some of these subtle discussions to take place.)
Parker uses the juxtaposition of the reactions of these two characters in a masterful way. The story is, in many ways, quite simple, but there are several key elements in play hidden beneath that simplicity. The key is the masterful use of the awkward, morning after situation to elicit two diverse reactions: joy on the part of the girl who has finally heard what she wanted from this man, and dread of having to explain himself on the part of Peter.
I saw an old episode of Friends the other day (stick with me, it applies) and the friends are watching the 70s sitcom, Three’s Company, and Chandler, in his usual sarcastic way says, “I think this is the one where there is some sort of misunderstanding,” to which Phoebe replies, “Oh, then I’ve seen this one,” and turns off the TV.
The comic misunderstanding is a staple of the television sitcom–it is the entire premise of a show like Three’s Company–and that principle can be used by the fiction writer just as well…and in Parker’s case, even better.