By Marie-Claude Champoux
A psychological analysis of ”Moving On”
Have you ever been in an uncomfortable conversation where you just wanted to run away? Well, if it was the case, it was a reflex from your unconscious mind. The short story, ‘‘Moving On’’, written by Diane Cook tells the story of widowed women who just lost her husband due to illness. She needs to leave everything behind her including her house, her car, and her memories. The placement team comes to pick her and bring her to a shelter for widowed women which is a prison-like basement where she’s going to start her process of moving on. When she’ll be ready, a new man chooses her as being a potential wife. The headspace of the author while writing this short story might explain the tone of the story: ‘‘I was thinking about being left behind. I was thinking about all the risks we take when we love someone and all the ways we might try to protect ourselves’’ (357). In Diane Cook’s ‘‘Moving On’’, the main character’s defense mechanism acts up as she tries to protect herself from the hurtful truth that her husband is gone.
In this short story, the narrators express her denial through the idea of pretending as she tries to secure herself from the reality. The purpose of a defense mechanism is to ‘‘protect ourselves from a feeling of anxiety or guilt which arise because we feel threatened.’’ The main character is left alone in her house, before being moved to the shelter, with everything that reminds her of her dead husband and she tries her best to handle this awful situation:
‘‘They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs. Which means I can stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and smell his clothes. I can cook dinner for two and throw the rest away, or overeat, depending on my mood’’ (44).
From the instant that I’ve read the beginning of the story, I was immediately touched emotionally, I truly felt her despair throughout these lines. However, there is more than her despair. In fact, by reading this quote over and over I realized that she used a defense mechanism, denial, to cope with her loss. This method implies not accepting that a certain event occurred which it can results in behavior that other might found as bizarre and this is exactly what she is doing when she ‘‘stand in the closet and smell his clothes’’. People might find it weird that she hides herself to smell the clothes of her dead husband but it works at an unconscious level and it might imply doing things you never thought you will do it. The word ‘‘burial’’ is important because it suggests that maybe she’s not ready to bury her husband but she is also not ready to bury all the memories that go with it. In response to this fear and anxiety, she ‘‘pretends’’ that he is simply away on business and he will eventually come home. Indeed, it’s very significant because by pretending, she is at the same time denying the reality. In comparison to this, there is a moment in the story where the main character finally stops refusing and start to accept the hurtful event. In an interview with Tin House, Diane explains how the letter the protagonist is writing to her window friend was an important moment: ‘‘Then she wrote the letter. That was the last new thing and to me, it is the most important part of the story’’ (interview). This might explain why the authors put so much emphasis on this letter. At the first place, this main character was writing this letter to her window friend she met once at the bingo but they she heard that he was chosen. However, while reading the letter to her manager, the protagonist comes to awareness and realized that the entire time, she was lying to herself and turns out that the letter wasn’t for her window friend:
‘‘I read it. My handwriting is looped and sleepy. […] I wrote a lot, and reread it obsessively to make it right. […] In the letter, I am begging. My tone near hysterics. […] I won’t forget to do small things like pick up the dry cleaning or rake the leaves. Of course, I’m writing to my husband. […] Here is my love letter, my apology; please come home’’ (52).
Before she was voluntary blind but now, she stars to see the reality as it is. ‘‘Denial also involves blocking external events from awareness’’. This is exactly what she was doing the whole time, she was rejecting the fact that her husband was dead but then she finally starts to acknowledge it. The narrator was distancing herself from being hurt by refusing the reality. The tone of this quote shows that the main character isn’t in full control of herself with the word ‘‘hysterics’’. It suggests that maybe the realization of this truth is more intense than she thought. Moreover, we are able to see the progression of her, accepting the fact that her husband isn’t going to come back home. Indeed, near the end of the short story, before being picked by a new husband, her tone suddenly changes, she is being more rational and less hysterical and she fully understands that he isn’t going to come back: ‘‘my husband is gone’’(54). She is not being as agitated as when she was when writing the letter to her window friend. Instead, the protagonist is being honest with herself and she is facing the truth even though this might be painful and heartbroken.
The main character’s denial is also expressed throughout her emotions as she tries to change her memories. The narrator often needs to imagine some moments she previously had with her husband but with someone else. In fact, the classes in which the narrator attends in her path to moving, the instructors gave her some techniques and one of them including the changes in her souvenirs. However, this process can be very painful since it creates a distortion in our mind. It involves taking a very precise instant in our mind, and then we voluntarily modify some components of it. In fact, she needs to imagine her husband next to her and then she needs to imagine him dissolving. Her reaction to this is very comprehensible: ‘‘I practiced not feeling a thing’’ (48). This quote is particularly revealing because it means that she is protecting herself from this hurtful process. However, no one is able to not feel a thing, everybody as emotions. This is a response from your unconscious mind, its first reflex is always to safe from any harm. Similarly, the protagonist is also faced with her emotions when she is being confiscated the only picture she had of her and her dead husband. She woke up and realize that she doesn’t have it anymore and then she thought: ‘‘I still can’t believe I was so careless’’ (48). In fact, she wasn’t being careless for real, it was her defense mechanism that was reacting for her and the reaction was similar to when she didn’t have any feelings due to the distortion in her mind. When you allow something or someone to have a certain hold on us, it automatically makes us vulnerable and the one response our mind will be to give the allusion that you don’t have any feeling which is false in reality. These two quotes have one thing in common, in both case, this is a reflex from her unconscious mind that tries to prevent her from any unpleasant feelings which means that she isn’t voluntary controlling these emotions.
This short story is also a projection of our society’s expectation toward the concept of ‘‘moving on’’. Everywhere, on the news, and especially on social media, where we select the information we want to share and obviously, we are never sharing the conflict but always the perfect moment of a relationship. Everybody is pretending to have a wonderful life, that they do not have any kind of problems, which we all know that this is false. In fact, we don’t want people to see us as being vulnerable because it might give them some power over you so instead, people tend to be cold. We live in a society that is individualistic and somehow selfish. We do accord a lot about the judgments of others, as well as the narrator does when she makes remarks about her neighbors and about her husband’s promotion gift. She thought that ‘‘It’s also a big family car, which will appeal to the neighbors, who all have big families. We hadn’t started our own yet’’ (44). This shows how she does care about what others might think of her, It also demonstrates how some people act in order to please others.
Boyle, T.C., editor “Moving On” The Best American Short Stories 2015, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015. 44-55.
“Unconscious Mind.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unconscious_mind
“Denial.” The Free Dictionary, https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Denial+(psychology)
“Defense Mechanisms.” Simply Psychology, https://www.simplypsychology.org/defense-mechanisms.html