By Charlotte Vézina-Dufresne
Close your eyes. Try to picture a perfect world. Is there freedom in this world? Is there love, hope, excitement? If so, the world of “Moving On” is far from perfection. Diane Cook’s “Moving On” describes the protagonist’s quest to reclaim control of her destiny in a civilization where a manual dictates how one should act and feel. In this dystopian tale, relationships are controlled by rules imposed by society and, once someone’s partner dies, they are sent off to a prison-like establishment until they are chosen to be married again. Widows and widowers are pressured to move on in a certain way and their feelings are completely disregarded which makes them lose sight of who they are and what they want. The main character’s path is drawn out for her but we see her question the rules which she is compelled to follow and long for something more.
Following the passing of her husband, the narrator is sent to a women’s shelter where we see her struggle with the process she is supposed to follow in order to get over her husband. The shelter holds seminars for widows about moving on. The women are handed pamphlets and a manual of different exercises on how to forget about their husbands by rewriting their first encounters: “for example, rather than sitting next to him and knocking water onto his welcome packet, I should visualize walking right by him and sitting alone” (45). This passage implies that the women are encouraged to repress their happy memories and set aside their feelings in order to move on. This presents such a contrast between a loving home environment and a place where emotions are a burden on the journey of moving on. The protagonist has just become a widow and she is struggling with the pressure to erase her husband from her past: “I’m supposed to pretend our wedding day was lonely, and that rather than love and happiness, I felt doubt, dread. It’s all very hard” (46). This quotation is interesting because it shows that the manual aims to get women to move on by having them forget their past rather than helping them heal from the loss of their loved ones. Because the narrator cared for her husband, she has trouble committing to the rules and letting go of the past. She sees her memories fade before her eyes as she thinks:
I imagine my husband laying beside me […]. My scalp tingles as I think of him scratching it. We rub feet. Then I have to picture him dissolving into the air like in a science-fiction movie, vaporized to another planet, grainy, muted, then gone. (48)
The fact that she compares her situation to a “science-fiction movie” helps show that the widows are being imposed a fictional way of grieving and that this is not how it should be. Fiction describes something imaginary and it is clear to the narrator that this is not how things should be handled in the real world.
After having been locked up in this shelter for a while, the narrator starts to crave attention in this place where love is sidetracked. It is easier for someone to get over their deceased husband when they have someone to fill that void with. The narrator is looking to do just that and she finds the attention she desires in her window friend: “A man is awake, like me. He pads around his small room in pajamas […]. I want to be seen, so I stand in my window. He sees me, steps to his window, and offers a quiet wave. I wave back. We are opposing floats in a parade” (48). This quotation is important because the narrator expresses her desire to be seen; it lets us see the fire in her heart and her hope for something more. It is a turning point for her as she starts to reclaim her emotions and longs for a deeper connection with her friend. Fortunately, she gets the chance to interact with him in person when the men’s shelter comes over for bingo. Although she barely knows him, the protagonist starts to develop feelings for her friend when “he touched his open hand to [hers] and [they] pressed them together and smiled. [She] felt [them] quake like small animals that have been discovered somewhere they shouldn’t be and have no time to run or place to run to” (50). The fact that she says that they have been discovered somewhere they shouldn’t be is interesting because it makes it seem like they have been caught doing something wrong when they simply touched hands. This exemplifies that love is not encouraged in an establishment like this. This also illustrates how much a simple touch of a hand can affect someone when they are being trained to give up their feelings. A spark is ignited in the narrator’s heart and we see her try to prolong this thrill: “Tonight, his light isn’t on and so we don’t wave, but still I undress in front of my lit window. I can’t know if he’s watching from the darkness, or who else is watching for that matter. I loved my husband. I mourn his tenderness. I have to believe that someone out there is feeling that tenderness for me” (50). It is clear from this passage that the protagonist just wants attention. She does not care who it comes from, but she simply wants to be desired. Her husband loved her and when she lost him, she also lost the affection he showed her.
Her developing relationship with her window friend is enough to make her reconsider her thoughts of living passively in this shelter and that “[her] way out of here is to get chosen” (50). Indeed, she begins to imagine the life she could have with her friend if they were to run away together:
I picture myself running. My nightgown billowing behind me, my hair loosening from a braid as I speed along. Finally, it comes undone and free. I hear the dogs behind me. I see the forest darkness in front of me. From across the field, a figure races towards me. But I’m not scared. It’s him. My friend. We planned it. We’re running so that we can be together. I feel hopeful to be running across this field, and then I know why they do it. They are running towards what they believe is best for them, not what the manual claims is best. (51)
It is an interesting choice of words to say that her hair would come “free” as she is running away because she too would become free of the system that is controlling her. Furthermore, this quotation shows character development as the narrator has disregarded the rules in order to imagine a better and happier future for herself. She begins to understand why people run and, although she is unsure if she would be willing to escape, she has changed her perspective on being cooped up in this shelter. The fact that she says “I’m not scared” demonstrates that she is brave enough to even consider running away with her window friend. When her Case Manager shows her the letter she wrote, the narrator realizes that she was begging her friend to escape with her. She promises “that [they’ll] find a house, unoccupied in the woods, abandoned years ago. That [they’ll] forage for food, but that eventually [they’ll] find work, even though all the jobs are spoken for. [She] insists [they’ll] be the lucky ones. […] Of course, [she’s] writing to [her] husband” (52). Although she is unable to admit it, this is probably the future she wants. She was ready to defy the rules of society, risking an uncertain, possibly better future simply to get herself out of the one planned out for her. The narrator didn’t necessarily want to run away with her window friend, but she found hope in the possibility of a second chance at happiness like she once had with her husband.
After her window friend has been chosen, the protagonist comes to terms with her destiny and lets herself be placed with a man in Tucson. She realizes that “what [she] wants, [she] can’t have. [Her] husband is gone. So her future will be something much quieter. It won’t be some dramatic feeling in the wild unknown. There are other ways to be happy. [She] read that in the manual. [She’s] trying them out” (53). Although this is not the happy ending she wanted, there is great recognition in knowing that she tried to change her fate. The passion she put in her letter about running away showed the hope that she had in her heart and her desire to go against what society had to offer to her to find true happiness in her freedom. The ones who run away are the only ones brave enough to even try to get something more than what their forced way of life offers them. She did not get that far, but at least she tried.
Boyle, T. C., editor. “Moving On”. The Best American Short Stories 2015. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015.
Unknown Author. “Fiction.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/fiction?s=ts