by Sahar Jaleel

How can a person truly grieve if he is being forced to shut down his emotions and forget his past memories? The short story, “Moving On”, written by Diane Cook tells the story of a woman that is being refrained from grieving the death of her husband. She is forced to “move on” very quickly by being put in a prison-like shelter where she is going to have to follow carefully what her Case Manager has in mind until she is chosen by another man that will become her new husband. The shelter did not give her a chance to grieve properly because she was forced to succumb to a completely different reality where she had to forget her past, which included the memories of her husband. Through the use of symbolism, I will show how our emotions and how grieving can be oppressed by society’s rules and expectations.

To begin with, in this short story one of the main symbols is the “manual”. This manual represents society’s rules and expectations. This manual contained rules that every single person in the shelter had to obey because if not they could jeopardize their future by not being chosen by anyone: “We have been given schedules and rules and also suggestions for improving our lives and looks. It’s like a spa facility on lockdown” (Cook 45). In this passage, I think that the analogy that the narrator is making is very important, she is comparing the shelter to a “spa facility” that is on “lockdown”. She is basically admitting that she is trapped in that place where she has to follow certain rules that only focus on taking care of her “looks” and not on what she really feels because to the people in the shelter her emotions do not matter. In addition, this is something we are able to see apply in the first task that has been given to her by “the manual,” she has to change every single good memory she has of her husband as seen in this passage:

“In my first ‘Moving On for Widows’ seminar we are given a manual of helpful exercises and visualizations. For one, I’m to remember seeing my husband for the first time – we met at a new hires lunch – and imagine the moment happening differently. So for example, […] if I let myself sit down and spill his water, instead of him laughing and our hands tangling in the nervous cleanup, I should picture him yelling at me for my clumsiness. I am supposed to pretend our wedding was lonely” (Cook 46).

In this passage, it is evident that the narrator is being pressured to alter the memories she has lived through, something that is seemingly impossible as how can someone change the truth? She is being brainwashed into changing her memories about things that initially brought happiness to her life. In this case, a woman who has recently been widowed is expected to “pretend” that her husband was not someone she thought he was, and as a result it forces her to forget about her current emotions towards him, which is grief. While I was reading this short story, I saw the manual as something that was toxic and intrusive, it was everywhere and the narrator herself constantly mentions it, in every situation, as if it engraved in her mind: “The manual says that in order to move forward we must change. But this change feels more like a collapse. And that is not how the manual says it will feel” (Cook 51). The fact that the author personifies the manual repetitively throughout the story and this passage is very important because it is something she subconsciously seems to have in her head, “the manual says”. As if the manual was a real human being whose role was to dictate exactly how the narrator should feel. In this citation, the readers are able to see that it was as if the “manual” itself did not consider the narrator’s emotions and simply told her how she should feel. Throughout this short story, I felt as if this symbol represented the idea that human emotions could be seen as something that is mechanical and very black and white. It seemed to me as if the narrator and every other person in that shelter were seen as robots and that the manual could dictate how they could feel and exactly when they feel it. However, in the story we are able to realize that that cannot be the case. For instance, if we take the narrator herself we see that although she is doing exactly as “the manual” tells her she is still not able to forget her past completely: “In bed, I imagine my husband lying beside me, warming the rubber-coated mattress, […] My scalp tingles as I think of him scratching it. Then I have to picture him dissolving” (Cook 48). This image is particularly revealing because it illustrates the idea that despite the fact that “the manual” keeps insisting her to forget about her past and her relationship with her husband but we can see by the way she describes the warmth of the mattress when her husband was besides her shows that some part of her has not forgotten about him. Another thing that is important here is that the second she realizes she is thinking about him she automatically feels as if she has to forget him. This is the effect that I was talking about, how that rulebook is something toxic that is consistently getting in her head and not allowing her to feel what she wants to feel.

To continue, another symbol in this short story that shows us how human emotions are oppressed by society’s expectation is the Case Manager. Throughout this short story, the Case Manager represented the authority figure that each person in the shelter had to listen to once again in order to be able to find another mate. The authority figure that tells them what to do: “My Case Manager says this is normal and that the feeling of detachment comes from shock […] the grief-stricken spend more time here. Years, in some cases” (Cook 46). Here we see that the main character does not seem to have the freedom to make her own choices. We can also infer from this scene that the authority uses fear to manipulate the narrator and the other people in the shelter in believing that they are obligated to do what they were told they did not want to spend “years” in that prison-like environment. Another scene that shows that she cannot make her own decisions is when she is being imposed to change rooms because they found out that she had something going on with the man on the other side of the window and her “Case Manager thought it best for me [her] to occupy a room in the back of the building” (Cook 50). In this passage what I found interesting is that its not something that the “Case manager says” anymore but its something she literally thought for the main character. The main character does not have the ability to express her own thoughts anymore; the Case Manager (authority/Government) does that for her. Also, something that was very shocking to me was when the main character asks her Case Manager when would be the best time to grieve and her response was: “ ‘Be sensible’ […] I can’t put your name on any list until you’ve shown you’re moving on. ‘But when do I grieve?’ ‘Now,’ she says, as though I have asked what day it is” (Cook 53). As I have mentioned before, it comes down to the idea that emotions in that particular society are perceived as something that is mechanical. But that is not how human emotions work; it does not have a specific time or place, and cannot be controlled by direct orders. The Case Manager is trying to erase emotions by strict order, but that is not possible because it is something that happens far out of the control of humans and cannot be controlled by anyone not even the Case Manager. When the main character asked her question she did not mean when literally, she actually meant that this whole time she was in the shelter all they were doing was occupying her by keeping her busy so she didn’t have time to think about her grief.

I really enjoyed reading this story because for me it represented a very important concept that many women in society deal with this today, the notion of a young woman that is trapped and does not know how to proceed with her life after a difficult trial in her life. The narrator is clearly seeking for help from people but no matter whom she turns (her Case Manager) to and what she refers herself to (the manual), they all seem to have the same exact response, which is to forget about her feelings. One might ask themselves if it is truly possible to completely forget our feelings or it is simply something that can be temporarily delayed them by keeping ourselves occupied?

Work Cited

Boyle, T. C., editor. “Moving On”. The Best American Short Stories 2015. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015.