By Miruna Mincic
What makes a story good is its ability to make the readers feel something while reading it. Whatever the feeling is, if a reader reacts in some way to the story or the character, the author has succeeded his or her purpose. If the story provokes an emotion for the reader, it is because that reader can relate on a certain level to it. A good story also has layers of meaning underneath the surface that the reader discovers by putting some thought into it. “Moving On” by Diane Cook tells the story of a widow who is put in a shelter with other women and they all have to “move on” from their past in order to be chosen by a new husband. However, if we scratch beneath the surface, the story shows that conditioning individuals into forgetting the past and pretending it never happened keeps them from grieving properly.
The functioning of the society in this story is illustrated by the Placement Team system, which weighs heavily upon people and keeps them from feeling any kind of emotion. The main character is hence restrained by the authority and cannot mourn the death of her husband. Because of her vulnerability due to her loss, it is easier for the placement team to shut down her emotions. She cannot think independently because of that, and constantly refers to “the manual” to tell her how to live her life, how to act and what to feel: “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 manual represents a kind of rule book or book of laws in that society that people follow without questioning its authenticity. It is understandable why the main character cannot resist this system if we look at everything she has been through. She might be vulnerable, but she is not weak in any way. She has experienced a great loss, and maybe with this loss, she also lost herself along the way. She obviously misses her husband a lot: “I stand in the closet and smell his clothes” (44), which is a normal human reaction after one loses a loved on suddenly. However, she also lost track of her father: “They sent him to her somewhere in Texas. I lost track of him. The nearest children’s shelter is in a different country” (45). This isn’t emphasized a lot in the story so we might think that it doesn’t affect her a lot, but I believe that it is quite the opposite, because otherwise that detail wouldn’t have been in the story. She clearly feels very lonely because she is now left with no loved ones in her life. This is the reason why she is so much more susceptible to being pushed around, however despite all of that, she is not helpless because she still has hope. At certain moments in the story, we have a glimpse of the fire that burns probably very deep down within her, but she constantly shuts it down, for instance when she thinks about the woman who tried to escape: “I secretly hope she, whoever she was, made it, and I feel twinges of curiosity at the thought of that life. But they’re just twinges. Not motivation” (53). There is something deep inside of her that awakens when she thinks of running away and defying the system, but it is not strong enough to break through her shell. What hides within her is perhaps the hope that is left from the love she felt for her husband. She hopes to, one day, be able to love again. This proves that she isn’t weak at all. She is hurting. She is trying to heal emotionally from the previous losses in her life, but how can she do that in a system that does not let her feel?
The character is also constantly forced to forget the memories from her life with her husband and pretend they never happened, or happened differently to eliminate feelings: “I’m to remember seeing my husband for the first time […] and then imagining the moment happening differently” (46). She is taught to practice not feeling, instead of dealing with her emotions and “not feeling” is impossible to achieve no matter how much one practices. She is prevented from grieving properly because it is only by facing our emotions and going though different feelings that we can grieve. It is necessary to cry, remember and reminisce in order to one day, be able to move on. It takes a lot of time, which is not an aspect that is given a lot of importance in this society. Grieving the loss of a loved one is treated like an illness that can only be cured by practicing forgetting. The one thing that this system ignores is that feelings, especially love, cannot be forgotten or replaced: “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). Real love is something that one never forget, no matter the amount of practice put into it. So, all that this system is doing is making it worse; the more she tries to forget and erase her past, the more she remembers and the more painful it actually is. She is clearly not ready to move on from her life with her late husband and she still loves him. The letter she writes supposedly to her window friend is in fact dedicated to her husband: “Of course, I am writing to my husband. […] Here is my love letter, my apology: please come home” (53). It is as if we can hear her voice break into tears when reading that. Just like a broken vase, when we try to glue it together, it’ll never look the same, and that is how grieving feels. She is broken and even after she “moves on” from her husband’s death, the scars on her heart will always remain. The last three words from that passage, “please come home”, show that she does not even see it as reality that her husband is gone forever and he is never coming back. She doesn’t even know how to grieve because she doesn’t know when she should: ‘Now’ [the Case Manager] says, as though I have asked what day it is” (53). The case manager tells her to grieve now, as if it is something within ourselves that we can turn on and off. These is no specific time when one grieves, it is a process that takes a lot of time.
The Placement Team oppresses the main character to such an extent that by the end of the story she is almost “brainwashed”. The authority forbids any kind of real human connections. She felt some kind of love or caring feeling when she met her window friend. Perhaps he was supposed to be the one that she spends her life with and that makes her feel good, almost like her husband did: “A guard watched us disapprovingly. We looked like we were having too much fun […] I felt us quake like small animals that have been discovered somewhere they shouldn’t be” (49-50). However, he is chosen and sent away because the society she lives in does not want what is best for her. I think this was the moment when she truly lost all hope or fire within herself because perhaps she saw him as her last chance, and when he was sent away she witnessed yet another loss. After this, she doesn’t even question or doubt that what the manual says she should feel is not representative of something that is actually possible to feel. She talks as if she truly trusts and believes the manual completely and even worships it. By the end of the story, she has given in and she doesn’t even feel those twinges that show that she is in fact stronger that she appears to be. She lets herself believe that her “new life” is now completely separated from her last one and nothing connects her to it anymore: “I’ve heard that someday I’ll barely remember that I ever knew my first husband”. She abandons the fight and allows the system to take full control over her life. She even mentions her husband as “her first husband” and she awaits the day that “the image [of her husband] will disappear forever and [she]’ll never think of him again” (55). At the end, she sounds as if she is simply saying rules straight out of the manual and her own opinion and judgment is no longer present.
The story “Moving On” has a lot more going on in it than just a story about a widow who is placed in a shelter, waiting to find another husband. It portrays the depth of the feeling of grief and the coping of the loss of a loved one, in a society where emotions are oppressed and shut down. It also shows that in this type of society, the vulnerability of a person makes him or her a lot more susceptible to giving into the oppression. This story makes the reader feel sadness, grief and anger because most of us can relate to the character. We have all at some point in our lives experienced a great loss. The story is able to make us feel a small part of the unimaginable pain that one must go through when faced with the sudden death of someone close to us and because of this, “Moving On” by Diane Cook a story worth reading.
Boyle, T. C., editor. “Moving On”. The Best American Short Stories 2015. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015.