You are on page 1of 5

Racism or one night in marriage!

The most ideal surface may be concealing a destructive core. Tobias Wolff s short

story, "Say Yes", in which two characters that seem to have achieved a perfect, written-

down-once and for all marriage, uncovers this destructive core. Wolff s style highlights

the controversial topic of race's pertinence to marriage by emphasizing how husband

and wife can be very distant in even the most convincingly understanding marriage.

The story is not introduced with dialogue, description or names, but with a sentence so

basic that it forces the reader to form a personal impression. Wolff writes, "They were

doing the dishes, his wife washing while he dried". In this beautifully mutual marriage, a

man and wife share the household works after a home cooked meal. By providing so little

detail, Wolff forces the reader to picture the typical American marriage. He can only hope

that the very thought causes the reader' to anticipate an American love story. In a single

line, minimalism has dealt its first blow, for such fantasies of a heartwarming American

classic only support Wolff s argument that society's view of the human relationship is

Dangerously shallow. He hopes it is obvious how close the couple stands together at the

sink, knowing the reader will be shocked to find that they are actually worlds apart.

There is a purposeful lack of dialogue until Wolff introduces the story's conflict.

He uses two concise paragraphs to spark an argument that will gradually wedge its way

between the couple and degrade their marriage. In response to these first sentences, the

literary critic, Bruce Alien, states that "Wolff can create quietly powerful settings...or

underscore the ominousness of a conventional experience by spare, flat descriptions".

There is no doubt that Wolff creates a powerful setting, for a couple's impending

disagreement creates tension in the story .Using barely even the "spare, flat description"
that is common in his writing; Wolff reveals that this couple is not the stereotypical

marriage that members of society strive for. The comforting icon of marriage that opened

"Say Yes" will be destroyed by a serious disagreement between husband and wife.

The wife daintily raises a question that seems simple at first but escalates into a

much more complicated disagreement. Though open discussion is the basis of a successful

marriage, the couple embarks upon a tumultuously controversial topic. Wolff writes,

"They talked about different things and somehow got on the subject of whether white

people should marry black people" .To a truly harmonious couple, such debate may only

tarnish the armor of their concrete marriage. Instead, in their disagreement, the husband

and wife unveil a shattering difference in opinion. Like the Trojan Horse, this beautiful

marriage contains underlying chaos. It is the couple's disagreement over the plausibility

of differing race in marriage that has dealt a fatal blow to their understanding of each

other. Wolff s minimalism achieves brevity through the ruthless paring away of extraneous

details. Consequently, this style forces the reader to understand independently how society,

in trying to fulfill a marital icon, overlooks understanding, the most important fundament

in a true marriage

The couple's argument is no bombastic Shakespearean monologue, nor is it one of

Arthur Miller's cleverly suggestive stretches of dialogue. Indeed, its simplicity adds

prevalence to Wolff s theme because little is open for interpretation. Such is the brilliance

of the minimalist, for with only a few short lines of dialogue, many authors would fail to

establish a message. Wolff, however, uses the reader instead of the ink to supply the

imagery, empowering his writing's effect. James Hannah writes:

For Wolff, short fiction should focus on the human concerns of characters within a

believable, realistic setting. Such stories are about "people who led lives neither
admirable not depraved, but so convincing in their portrayal that the reader had

to acknowledge kinship. (In the Garden of North American •' Martyrs?)

Wolff could easily have stated that the couple's relationship was indeed deteriorating, but

nothing could deviate further from minimalism because doing so would have alienated the

reader. Calling for the reader to consider his own relationships, Wolff hopes that after

seeing the flaws with the seemingly hopeful marriage in "Say Yes," he will explore the

truth in their own depth of understanding. Indeed, if a misunderstanding had such a

destructive effect on Wolff s outwardly perfect couple, there is no telling how destructive

the same misunderstanding could prove to an "average" couple.

Even with minimal description, Wolff escalates the emotion of the argument. The

husband passionately defends his belief that had his wife been black, she would be a

different person. The wife takes an opposite, more civil stand, demanding that love should

be unconditional despite potentially differing race. Thus, it becomes increasingly clear that

this is not the compatible couple who stood washing dishes together paragraphs before, but

is one in which two humans stumble across strong differences in their mate that they had

been oblivious to. After his wife leaves the kitchen, obviously disgusted with what she feels

is ignorance in him, the man takes the garbage out, thinking, "in another thirty years or so

they would both be dead. What would all that stuff matter then? He thought of the years

they had spent together and how close they were and how well they knew each other”. Not

only does he physically leave the house, creating distance from his wife, but the husband

mentally detaches himself from his marriage by trying to put the altercation out of his

head. Wolff shows this distance by simplifying the husband's thoughts, stating his feelings

rather than drawing them out as a romanticist does. This emphasizes that in a stereotypical

marriage such as this, an avoided issue can become the wedge that drives a couple apart.

In this instance, a husband and wife have not only avoided an issue, but have never been
warned of its existence. Perhaps Wolff considers this even more detrimental.

In addition to revealing its dissent, Tobias Wolff creates the effect of distancing the

couple by withholding all proper nouns from his story. Except for in a few lines of dialogue,

when one of the characters makes reference to "Jesus" or "Christ" to show frustration, no

names or places are mentioned. Thus, the characters cannot be pinned as being of Slavic,

Chinese, or any other descent for that matter. Similarly, they might as well live alone in the

wilderness because no city or state name accompanies the setting of their generic home.

Wolff invites the reader to make assumptions. James Hannah comments on the success of

Wolff s distancing of his two characters:

"Say Yes" carries [an] interesting variation on one of his most prevalent themes -

the inability of one person to know and understand another fully and the resultant

mystery that enshrouds and often romanticizes the unknowable.

(Back in the World 8)

To what extent could the reader feel the connection in a marriage in which the husband

and wife fail to recognize each other by name? In this way, Wolff s minimalism limits the

emotional content of the story by restricting the two characters to almost robotic

interaction. At first, Wolff beckoned the reader to regard his couple with the same esteem

that the Trojans did the Trojan Horse. By the end of the story though, the Trojan Horse

has erupted, leaving nothing to veil the conflict that has been hiding itself from both man

and wife.

Their argument had revealed incompatibilities in their marriage, and later the

same night, as the husband lays in bed waiting for his wife to return from the bathroom, he

realizes this. He scarcely recognizing the movements and sounds that she presumably

makes on a nightly basis, and no longer connects with his wife as an understanding

husband should. In relation to the husband's realization, Tobias Wolff himself once said,
"The desire to subvert and to probe and to question and to dig the foundations out from

under everybody represents fraudulent selves to the world" (Back in the World 1). Wolff

recommends that couples strive to understand each other unconditionally and provides

the disaster in "Say Yes" as motivation to achieve this. A minimalist's manifesto, Wolff s

story communicates the harm of society's blindness in marriage without ever

condemning it openly. In doing so, Wolff beckons his audience to scratch the enamel off

their own marriage and to test how deep or how shallow their level of understanding truly

is. Wolff is capable of conveying a message using few words. The amount of words

necessary to understand one's spouse, however, is infinite.

Related Interests