by Nareh Sarkissian
Freedom can be enslaving. Nothing can be more exasperating than feeling trapped between two contradictions, once given the opportunity to make decisions. In the short story “Moving On”, Diane Cook creates a make-believe world, to emphasize the fact that independence can be imprisoning.
This captivating short story describes the journey of a widow from her point of view. After losing her husband, the protagonist is sent to an institution, which is a shelter for widows. The author created this imaginary establishment, which is described more or less as a prison. It is a place for people who are mourning a loved one, where they have group activities and seminars to get over their deceased spouses. Once they achieve, they will be able to leave the institution to get married to men who are also a widower. Throughout the story, the protagonist feels torn apart. She is encouraged to behave and follow the rules, but she wants to escape from it all. Although she never gets the courage to do so, because she fears being independent.
The story is full of contradictions, which is very striking because it highlights the narrator’s struggle of feeling mixed up. In the beginning of her journey, she is taken away from her home and sent to a temporary women’s shelter. On her way to the shelter, she thinks to herself that after being institutionalized, she has “a good shot at getting chosen…” (44). It’s clear from this passage that she is afraid of being alone. Before even getting through the stages of grief, and before making it to the placement, she thinks about marrying someone else. This is not because she is ready to move on from her past, but because she has never been independent, and she fears it. Independence means free of outer control, it means that the narrator will not be relying on others for help and guidance. This is the reason why she is stuck in a paradox. Moreover, the narrator is encouraged to forget happy memories and to visualize being alone. She has a very hard time pretending her married life didn’t exist and she feels “doubt, dread. It’s all very hard” (46). The feelings of doubt and dread might be revealing an alternative. Maybe she fears being alone, more than losing the memories of her husband. Forgetting her memories is harder because of the anxiety that comes from being lonely. The narrator doesn’t even want to visualize herself alone, because it is unfamiliar to her, and it seems strange and intimidating. She is stuck in this contradiction because she doesn’t actually know what she wants. She wants to leave and be on her own, but she also fears it, because she doesn’t even know what it would feel like.
Throughout her journey, she often hears stories of other women at the shelter who try to run away from the controlled institution, and she thinks to herself how she would never have the courage to run. “They think they will fare better on their own. I don’t think I could do it. I’m too domestic for that kind of thing… [They] are mostly concerned with escape. They are bullish.” (47-50). In this particular passage, she is standing in her own way. She has the potential to get away from this horrible place she’s locked in. She’s scared of breaking out of her comfort zone, but at the same time, she’s not even sure if running would be a good idea. She contradicts herself one more time when she says, “I would give anything to run through a field and not stop. I have never been the running-through-fields type” (49). She has never tasted freedom, but she has the opportunity to change. The author uses this make-believe facility as a metaphor, to express the fact that most people are scared of escaping their own personal prisons they have trapped themselves in.
They form a human shield around a woman on her knees. She Is digging into the ground with a serving spoon from the cafeteria. It is bent, almost folded, but still, she scrapes at the pebbly soil. (47)
This passage suggests that “scraping the pebbly soil” can be a metaphor for people trying to get away their own prisons. Most of the time, “they never do. And yet always try.” (51). In real life, people work hard and try to escape but they get broken because they never achieve. Like the serving spoon from the cafeteria which is bent, almost folded, but doesn’t give up. Also, we notice how the author uses the words “human shield”, as a way of describing how humans stand in their own way and try to protect themselves from the unfamiliar.
In more detail of the placement, the narrator describes the made-up facility, which is very paradoxical. In the beginning, when the protagonist is still new to the facility, she has difficulty determining whether the shelter is a good place or not. She sees it as, “a spa facility on lockdown” (45). This citation is interesting because a spa is a place where people go to unwind for a while, where they can be alone and relaxed. Whereas prisons are usually on lockdowns, to keep prisoners in a certain restricted area, and under control. But how can this facility be both at the same time? Although, she often doesn’t mind being kept in the shelter, because many people are good to her, and she convinces herself that the institution is treating her well. “It is lovely to be with women. In many ways, this is a humane shelter.” (47). This causes us to think of the contradictions because the protagonist is confused as to whether the shelter is friendly or not. On one hand, she has friends and she enjoys some of her time. Whereas sometimes things get violent and trapped and lonely. The narrator describes how a woman on the fifth floor was harmed by being “Slashed across the cheek with a razor blade. (47) This indicates why she would refer to the shelter as a “spa facility on lockdown”. This expresses the fact that even though the shelter has all these ‘wonderful’ classes, activities, friends and seminars, it is still a prison, with guards and fences and violence. This is very intriguing because this could be understood in many ways. This reminds me of extremely rich people, who have incredible mansions, but they have a broken family and or an unhappy home. Or people who go on vacations to the most beautiful countries, but cry themselves to sleep every night. This just proves how people have a lot of things standing in their way of happiness and how everyone faces contradictions in everyday life, making it harder for them no matter what their condition is. When a new member joins the narrator’s floor, they soon discover how cruel and violent she is. Along with other awful acts,
She crept into sweet Laura’s room and cut a big chunk of her long shiny hair with safety scissors. (49)
The word “safety scissors” suggests that a shelter, which is designed to be safe and secure, can get ugly at times. It is ironic how the “safety” scissors can cause harm.
This story’s strength lays behind the deeper meanings of the ongoing contradictions. Diane Cook creates these scenarios to make us think of the real world we live in, and how humans have limited free will, because of all these contradictions.
Cook, Diane. “Moving On”. The Best American Short Stories, by T.C. Boyle with Heidi Pitlor. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, New York, 2015. pp. 44-55