by Kaylyn Riccucci
Dystopian stories, if written well, can be fantastic. “Moving On” by Diane Cook is about widows, widowers, and divorcees, who find themselves in shelters once their spouses are gone. These shelters contain the tips and tricks on how to move on from their previous marriage so that the men and women can prepare themselves for when a stranger claims them as their new spouse. Already a very interesting concept. However, like a well-written dystopian, the author focuses on the people living in this situation. She paints a picture of an oppressive society while showcasing the people in it who further hold themselves back.
One of the things that I hadn’t thought of while reading this story the first and second time was that there may be another side to it. Throughout the story, I am only really getting little details here and there about the way the shelters are being run, based on the protagonist’s experience. She describes the shelter as though it’s a prison, with guards constantly around and an outdoors area that resembles a, “fenced pen […] topped with barbed wire” (46). This is only one perspective out of the many people who live in those shelters. It seems horrible and I imagined it as a really tough place to be in for anyone who is grieving over a lost one. Who probably wishes to be home more than anything else.
But then I started thinking, “What if they didn’t want to be in their homes in the first place”? The men and women in these shelters are being forced to move on from whatever brought them there, but maybe not all of them. Relationships are not all great, some are abusive and unfulfilling. There are two sides to everything. There was one specific part that got me thinking about this. On the day of her departure from the shelter, a woman named Marybeth was with the protagonist and other the women as they said their goodbyes: “We stood in a circle embracing, laying our heads on each other’s shoulders, and Marybeth did not want to leave” (47). The men and women who find themselves in these shelters are together. They can form bonds and friendships, which is what some may need more than anything. This can be something helpful for their grief, having people understand exactly what they are going through. Having people support them. One could say that those relationships are the most important and healthiest part of these shelters. However, there’s no emphasis on these relationships in the shelters themselves. Marybeth shows her sadness and fear of her inevitable departure when she whimpers, “’I’m not ready’” (47). She’s not ready to leave this place that has become safe and warm, not ready to leave the comfort of her friends for a new stranger. She seems to need the shelter more than she wants to escape it. I read from the authors notes that throughout the process of writing this story, she wanted to add some depth to the shelters and the inhabitants: “It became a place where people were trying to make the best of a bad situation or fleeing from it” (358). Maybe this is part of the reason why the shelters were created in the first place. Maybe there are some men and women who see them not as prisons, but sanctuaries.
Despite the way the shelters could be seen by the inhabitants, the system itself is unsympathetic and oppressive. These people are forced to live in a prison-like building, in “cinder-block room[s]” (48), with only an hour a day outside. They cannot keep anything from their past life, from their lost loved ones. For those coming out of a bad relationship, this might be extremely helpful, for others, it can make the experience a thousand times more difficult. They cannot choose. And while the men and woman can theoretically grieve, they are given a time limit to do so: “’I can’t put your name on any list until you’ve shown you’re moving on’” (53). You can basically suck it up as fast as you can if you want a life outside of the shelter, or you can try and run. Running in this story represents something for the men and women who do not want to be there, who feel confined. It is their defiant response to this external oppressive force. It is an act that they choose, that they control. I saw this act as the men and women’s own way of grieving. One that is not forced, but done completely done out of their own will, even if they are not successful. It’s almost poetic.
The author did a great job regarding the setting of the story. She only provided little details about the shelters and the protocol for someone who has lost a loved one, but by revealing little details about the shelters, the author kind of created a picture of what the society was like outside of them. A society that is controlling and a little scary to be quite honest. But this also got me thinking about not only the freedom the shelters take away but how much freedom the characters allow themselves to have. Normally in dystopian stories, there’s a protagonist that wants to change things, yet in this story, the protagonist doesn’t fight it much. She doesn’t think that she’s the kind of person to go against the rules, she doesn’t think herself to be courageous enough to try, regardless of what she really wants. She thinks herself to be, “too domestic for that kind of thing” (47). Which implies a sort of self-hate and lack of confidence. Perhaps in this society and in her relationship, she has been confined to a domestic and quiet role, however, she is also ultimately denying herself the chance to break out of it.
She had further prevented herself from letting go of this internal oppression by repeating to herself what the shelter’s manual claims is best for her: “There are other ways to be happy. I read that in the manual. I’m trying them out. My Case Manager says this is healthy” (54). It’s almost sad to see the main character deny herself the happiness that she should have, the kind of happiness that a small part of her knows she wants. But that part of herself is overshadowed by something bigger, convincing herself that what she wants can be pushed aside. Upon the first few nights at the shelter, she was given a picture of a man and was told to replace the image of her husband with the man in the photo: “He looks as if he doesn’t need to shave every day. My husband had a beard. But, I remind myself, that doesn’t matter now. What I prefer is no longer the concern” (46). She must remind herself. That is what frustrates me the most, the fact that she has to repeat to herself that what she values is not important anymore. She is casting her values aside, and in doing so she is giving in to the oppressive shelters and society, but also to that oppressive part of herself. This seems to do the trick since after eight months of living in the shelter she gets on the list to receive a new husband. While thinking of her new life, she recalls that she was told how one day, “[she’ll] barely remember that [she] ever knew [her] first husband” (54). She seems to think that this is best for her, but for her to move on and cope with her grief, she doesn’t necessarily have to forget her husband. She chooses to believe, without satisfaction, that it’ll happen one day: “I’m not looking forward to this day. But I won’t turn my back on it. As the manual states, it’s my future. And it’s the only one I get” (55). An ironic statement. It’s her future but she acknowledges that it has been given to her, and she must make the most of it, regardless of her personal happiness. This made me think of arranged marriages and how the brides or grooms must feel. What do they tell themselves before getting into a marriage that they never asked for in the first place? Even if they agree with the marriage, how do they feel about starting a new life with someone they don’t know? They are obligated to marry, and I guess it differs in opinion (much like the protagonists’ story could) on whether they internally limit themselves by going through with it.
However, knowing that the protagonist was holding herself back, it made the moments when she let herself think of doing something bold, a lot more meaningful. After witnessing q woman running in the dead of night she pictures herself, “not scared” and “hopeful to be running across this field” (51). This paragraph was soaked in imagery, it was so well written that I could perfectly visualize the scene panning out, in my head:
“Floodlights sweep over the field, then through my window. I hear far-off yowling of dogs as they smell their way through the night, tracking some woman. Curiously, I find myself rooting for her. Perhaps I’m half-asleep but, peering out my window, I think I can see her. When the lights pan the wasteland between the pen and the forest, something like a shadow moves swiftly, with what seems like hair whipping behind, barely able to keep up with the body it belongs to” (51).
I felt like I was experiencing this moment with the protagonist. I could hear the dogs, see the lights, and imagine the bobbing shadow run towards the beginning of the forest, just outside the pen. The whole scene brought something out of the main character. She pictures herself running, and finally understands that “[the people] are running toward[s] what they believe is best for them, not what the manual claims is best. It should be the same but it isn’t” (51). If I could choose one bit of fire in any part of the story, this would be it. This was the moment when the protagonist saw how the shelters, Case Managers and manuals may not know what’s best for the people after all. This was a moment when she let that little part of her, the part that knew what she wanted, come to surface. It was like the protagonist had opened her eyes. This was a very powerful part, both for her to experience and me to see. It was brief, but it held a lot of weight to it. For a second the protagonist got a little taste of what her life would be like if she could choose, yet still rejects it. I was rooting for her too, and it was a shame to keep seeing her conform. On the other hand, I liked how the author did this. Stories don’t always have happy endings, we can’t all be heroes.
Both the internal and external forces weighing on the men and women in these shelters are relatable and realistic to some extent. The author wanted to integrate depth into her story, and by creating this underlying conflict, I think she succeeded.
Cook, Diane. “Moving On.” The Best American Short Stories. Ed. T.C. Boyle. Boston: Mariner Books, 2015. 44-55. Print.