By Chad Levett
Diane Cook’s “Moving On” is a disturbing short story that delves into the complexity of grieving a loved one. In this story, we are introduced to a woman who has recently become a widow, and is naturally facing the emotional hardships of losing him. We learn that the narrator has been stripped of her lifelong possessions, memories and is forced to live in a temporary shelter, which offers nothing but unfamiliarity and rules. It appears that being selected and getting rewarded with a new husband is the solution they are proposing to her, yet this entire process is moving at a very quick pace, one that she is not mentally prepared for. I believe that the readers can feel the heartache the narrator is experiencing and the difficulty she’s having in dealing with the uncertainty of her future. As the main character struggles to hold on to her past, and is desperate to look to a more promising future, she is conflicted. She feels trapped, but feels that this is her only solution.
From the onset of the story, the lack of individuality of the narrator sets the stage for the rest of the story, where both women and men are treated with no regard for their personal emotions. The narrator describes a circumstance involving her replacement from her old floor in this shelter, where this lady informs the narrator that the women on her floor occasionally call her by the main character’s name accidentally: “She told me this to comfort me, with a sympathetic pat on my arm. But it doesn’t help. Is there any difference between us beyond a few letters in our names?” (50). This supports the fact that not at any point in the story do we learn of their names, age, or even where this story took place. Every one of these characters aside from her new spouse is clumped under the category of “widow” or “divorced”. Regardless of the efforts being made by the narrator’s floor replacement to help her cope, she is so overwhelmed with emotion that a simple gesture is not going to be the answer for her wish to feel individualized and understood.
We learn that this widow must follow a manual and is instructed as to what guidelines she must follow in order to move on from her husband’s death. The manual guides the story and its meaning, regardless of whether they are a widow or divorcee, they are being told to follow a set of instructions and a guide to live by. The manual symbolizes the real world we live in, where unfortunately we don’t control nearly as much as we think we do. She must detach herself from her emotions and her physical belongings according to their rules: “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. Or make a time capsule full of pictures I won’t be allowed to keep” (44). Healing is a complicated concept with many dimensions involved. Is locking herself in the closet the best way for the narrator to heal? We never get a chance to find out. From this thought, we can perceive that it is obvious the main character is struggling internally as she feels trapped in her thoughts, expressing conflicting emotions where she knows what has to be done, yet is having difficulty accepting the fact that the steps involved in doing so will not be an easy task. Knowing the painful process of grieving can take years and the hurt can remain for a lifetime, there is no clear way of healing when there are so many dimensions involved. I was completely disheartened by these unrealistic, unacceptable expectations. When the narrator recounts the time she was observing a special picture she had taken with her husband where they looked so blissful, she cherishes the moment yet regrets her mistake: “One night, I fell asleep while looking at it; it fell to the floor, was found at wake-up, and was confiscated. I still can’t believe I was so careless” (48). The words “can’t believe” and “careless” imply that the widow is struggling internally as she feels trapped to do the right thing and not look at her husband’s picture and yet on the other hand she feels the need so desperately to remember her husband by looking at his picture and savoring the memories they had together. It is obvious that in the grieving process, she experiences conflicting emotions as good memories are always to be treasured, yet it hurts so deeply when they are a thing of the past and can never be relived again: “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). She feels dread because she doesn’t want to feel like she didn’t enjoy her wedding day. She wants to remember her wedding day as happy.
In this story, the narrator see’s the importance of discussing the link between this shelter and that of an animal. This shelter that is for men and women appears comparable to an animal shelter where one waits their turn to be chosen, taken from the life they once knew to a place of unfamiliarity, not being aware of what will come next: “In many ways, this is a humane shelter. We are women with very little to do and no certain future” (47). The narrator indicates that aside from living in the same quarters, these women have similar interests and are grouped together like animals that need to be fed, walked and cared for. In one of her weak moments, she reveals how difficult it is to think of being with another man after all she’s gone through with her late husband: “How strange to worry about someone wanting you when we had been wanted by each other so confidently” (48). It is obvious that the idea of being desired by another partner is foreign to her and she struggles to accept the reality of this new situation.
A very big part of this whole process in the shelter involves changing who you are to fit the description in order to be accepted as someone to be picked for a new husband: “The manual says that in order to move forward we must change. But this change feels more like a collapse” (51). This action is significant because it is evident she feels broken to pieces by the choices being presented to her and changing who she is to fit the perfect profile is an incredibly difficult task, knowing she is in such a weak state. It can be surmised that being chosen will not alleviate her pain and change her for the person she is, one who has fond memories of her past and no answers to her future. In essence, the widow knows this is the route being requested upon her, but really is this the route that is best for her when she’s struggling to move on from the life she once knew? This is indicated when the case manager says without sensitivity: “I can’t put your name on any list until you’ve shown you’re moving on” (53). The case manager further emphasizes that the only attitude to have is to want yourself to change and can only be attained by: “Practice, practice, practice, she always says” (46). Although being chosen may seem like the perfect solution to her future, it is obvious she struggles with this and is only willing to accept this since she sees no better alternative: “As the manual often states, it’s my future. And it’s the only one I get” (55). As she battles to grasp with what the manual is saying, her future is clearly important to her, yet it appears this manual is simplifying the steps without considering the gravity of her personal situation. This is a very controversial approach to grieving, as it’s unfair to assume that there is only one chance to someone’s future. It is very possible that with time and strength, the narrator could live alone for a while, achieve some independence and make the choice that might be best suited for her.
The only glimmer of hope we see from this woman is when she meets her window friend. This was the first time that despite her internal struggles, she showed signs of optimism for her future. The narrator uses personification to help her describe a positive attitude towards a better one in the future: “ A window has blinked to life across the road” (48). She continues to express signs of life in that another man has acknowledged her and this seems to make her feel validated on some level. “Something very special has happened. I met my window friend (…) The nights we wave have become important to me. It’s nice to be seen by a man” (49). As a reader, it is slightly contradictory knowing that such a short period of time has passed and it is obvious she is grieving, yet seems so willing to be enticed by a complete stranger and is so captured by him.
It is evident that the grieving process is not an easy one and each individual needs his or her own time and space to achieve this. This shelter is not only a place that physically shelters women and men through fences and guards; it mentally handicaps their minds with manuals and close-mindedness. This widow knows that one day her husband will be a blur, one that she really is not looking forward to. She wishes she could keep him in her thoughts and memories, yet in reality she believes this is an impossible task: “I’m not looking forward to this day. But I won’t turn my back on it” (55). It is dismal that her internal conflict leads her to feel that although she’s been given these choices, she sees no other solution than to accept what’s been given to her as a future. It is plain to see that she was in fact conflicted to keep her memories alive and hope for a more optimistic future but had difficulty doing so, as evident in her actions throughout the short story. It is a difficult position to be in where a widow feels trapped and yet sees being trapped as her only solution to her lonely existence.
Boyle, T. C., editor. “Moving On”. The Best American Short Stories 2015. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015.