By Andy Nhieu

Freedom, a relatively broad concept, is something that most of us value on a day-to-day basis. Yet, what exactly is freedom and are we actually free? Given the complexity of freedom, it has many different variations in its interpretation. In general, most can define it to be a “state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint” . Similarly, Diane Cook’s “Moving On” successfully explores the multiple facets of freedom and how the protagonist might not be as ‘free’ as she believes. The distinction between being free from something and being free to do or to be something is also emphasized by the main character’s actions. Her husband’s death will lead to her downfall, as she will be introduced to a different world view that will shape the rest of her days.

After the death of her late husband, the protagonist is sent to this rehabilitation center run by a Placement Team. In this facility, the residents are under a false impression that they should be grateful to be in this women’s shelter and that they are here for their own good. By examining the imagery described on page 46, one might have the impression that the illustrated setting is quite identical to a prison

“We are allowed outside for an hour each day, into a fenced pen off the north wing. […]. The fences are topped with barbed wire. Guards sit in the booths and observe. […]. Though coyotes prowl the barren tract, it is the forest that, to me, seems most menacing. It is so unknown” (Cook)

It is rather obvious that the facility clearly intends for its residents to stay within the barbed fences. Needless to say, the vivid description of the prison-like shelter indicates that the shelter itself is a metaphor for the lack of freedom that these women have in this dystopian society. We can also further explore the menacing and unknown aspect of the forest. The forest is where the threatening, the danger, and the unknown reside. It is dark and mysterious, in contrast with the comfort of home and society. There are no rules or laws in the forest, no boundaries whatsoever; it is freedom in its rawest state. As for coyotes, they are known to be shape-shifters and for their adaptability. The protagonist feels threatened by coyotes because she is not ready to adapt and overcome her new reality. The death of her husband left a hole that is not yet ready to be filled. More so, the narrator also fears the forest because of the overwhelming freedom it provides. As a matter of fact, she frequently ponders about those who try to escape and often puts herself in their position: “There are runners who try to escape at night. They think that will fare better on their own. I don’t think I could do it. I’m too domestic for that kind of thing” (47). One could argue that she is having these thoughts because of a hidden desire to escape the shelter. Although, it would seem more plausible that her fear for her future, when she will be matched with another man and will be free to live her life outside the shelter, is enough to convince her to restrict herself from deserving freedom. She fears the uncertainty in being chosen. Furthermore, the narrator is physically trapped in a place that prevents her from any individual wants or needs. Although, she herself takes away what most would value the most: her freedom. After she and her window friend have been separated, she confines herself and pretends to be ill so that she can stay in bed. The narrator feels sorry for herself and does not actively seek happiness or freedom.

For reasons that are unknown to her, the narrator secretly roots for those who tempt to escape the shelter. She eventually comes to an understanding to why others choose to escape the night she witnesses a fugitive in action: “[…] then I suddenly know why they do it. They are running toward what they believe is best for them, not what the manual claims is best. It should be the same thing, but it isn’t (51)”. The protagonist, along with all the other women in the shelter, are not given the freedom to choose what is best for them. The act of running through an open field itself is a metaphorical meaning for freedom. Later on in the story, she admits that everybody has their own way of dealing with things, stating that some choose to cry, some bully, and that others choose to run. She mentions to feel twinges at the thought of running away and the excitement of that lifestyle. Yet she fully understands that such life is not meant for her and that she’d rather follow the rules: “What I want, I can’t have. My husband is gone. So my future will be something much quieter. It won’t be some dramatic feeling in the wild unknown. There are other ways to be happy. I read that in the manual” (54). Once more, the protagonist is pessimistic about her future and limits herself to what her it has to offer. After her husband’s death, she deems herself unworthy of freedom and happiness because her love for him still lingers. By self-restricting her freedom, she would preferably accept what’s to come unresistingly. When being asked to replace her husband with a picture of another man, the narrator begins to compare their features and expresses her preferences. Although, she comes to a realisation that such preferences are no longer pertinent and she would much rather accept her fate: “But, I remind myself, that doesn’t matter now. What I prefer is no longer of concern” (46).

The manual has a direct impact on the protagonist’s world view. It dictates generalized claims on how to mourn a loved one while utterly disregarding personal experiences. The narrator is forced to completely supress her feelings and is obliged to feel whatever it tells her to feel. It is impossible for a manual to instruct these individuals, who have lived through absolutely different life experiences, how to behave or feel a certain way. The Case Managers do not simply suggest the residents to read the manual, they preach these sets of rules and, in a way, indoctrinate the mourning widows. Only days after her husband’s death, she is sent to this rehabilitation center in order to be brainwashed, in hopes of being chosen once more to be someone’s partner. It is expected of her, as well as all the members in this so-called shelter, to neglect and suppress any type of affection left for their ancient partners and follow these seminars to become the “ideal” or “perfect” significant other. One night, the narrator imagines her husband lying next to her in bed, and tries to dissolve this image in the hopes to obliterate all past feelings for him: “Then I have to picture him dissolving into the air like in a science-fiction movie, vaporized to another planet, grainy, muted, then gone. […] I practice not feeling a thing” (48). Is it possible for a human being to not feel anything whatsoever? The narrator seems to progress towards the end goal of the shelter’s recovery process when she manipulates her instinctive reflexes to suppress any emotions that will arise or that still persist.

Patients are both physically and psychologically trapped in this facility that is supposed to assist their recovery. They do not possess the freedom to react based on their emotions and neither do they have the freedom to physically leave the shelter. When came the time for the narrator to say goodbye to her window friend, there was a moment when they held hands. This is the first physical interaction with the opposite sex that she has experienced in weeks, yet, she know that she does not possess the freedom to act upon her will: “I felt us quake like small animals that have been discovered somewhere they shouldn’t be and have no time to run, or a place to run to” (50). She literally compares herself to small animals, who are quite often frail and vulnerable. The protagonist knows what she is doing is not permitted and she is therefore not able to act freely. She also expresses her desire to run or hide away repetitively: “I would give anything to run through a field and not stop. I have never been the running-through-fields type” (49). As mentioned above, the act of running in an open field is the ultimate imagery for freedom. There is nothing more liberating than running freely through an open field without a specific purpose. It provides a feeling of well-being and a sense of control over one’s desires. The same night, she undresses herself in front of her window, hoping that her window friend or somebody else out there is watching her: “I can’t know if he’s watching from the darkness, or who else is watching, for that matter. […] I have to believe that someone out there is feeling a kind of tenderness for me. I’ll take it any way I can” (50). In this passage, she expresses her desire for attention and is deeply deprived of love and affection. Once again, this need of love and belonging is stripped away from her the next morning as she is transferred onto another floor.

Upon further inspection of Diane Cook’s short story, we come to realize that we are not so far from her protagonist’s situation. It is interesting how the different realms of freedom are explored. I can’t help myself to ponder on whether we too are under the false impression of experiencing freedom in its purest form.

 

Works Cited

Cook, Diane. “Moving On” The Best American Short Stores 2015. Boyle. Fifteenth Edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015. 44-55.

“Freedom.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, 2017, http://www.dicionary.com/browse/freedom.