“Beauty is Strength” by Marjorie Barnard Anatomy of a Perfect Short Story

“Beauty is Strength” is a short story in the book “The Persimmon Tree and Other Stories” by Marjorie Barnard.  A more complete discussion of this book will appear in a later entry at this site. All of the quotes in boldface are taken verbatim from the story.

This story begins with a woman going to the beauty salon for her regular appointment.

    “The locks lay dank against her head.  A sleepless night always took the life out of her hair.  It was part of the weariness of being over forty that you daren’t have any emotions, they took it out of your looks too much.  A month at the beach hadn’t done her hair any good either.”

It hadn’t been a good holiday.

    “She would rather, after all, have stayed home with Ced.  When he had urged her to go she’d taken it for granted that he was being generous as he always was.”

While the girl in the beauty salon adjusts the hair dryer, the woman sees herself in the mirror.

    “It was from moments like these, when you saw your face isolated, that you learned the truth about it.  Her mouth looked hard and disappointed, and round each corner there was clearly discernable, in this impartial light, a little bracket of wrinkles….Her cheek bones looked high and stiff and on her throat, where age first shows itself, the working of the muscles showed too clearly, and the skin under the chin was ever so puckered.“

The woman begins to question why her husband sent her away on this month-long holiday and thinks of the suspicious tell-tale signs she found when she returned from the holiday to home.

    “Three dress shirts.  And he’d said he’d been nowhere…He always grumbled at getting into a dress shirt but he looked his best in evening dress…To see those three new-laundered shirts was like picking up a bird’s feather bright with the tell-tale mating colors.”

The woman remembered a letter addressed to her husband lying on the table when she returned from the holiday.

    “She recognized Viola’s handwriting at once large, eager, rather unformed.  It was bulky; even in Viola’s sprawling script, a long letter.  She had weighed it speculatively and put it by with an open mind.  She wasn’t, she often told people – particularly Ced – a jealous  wife, nor would she be but for the possessive streak as strong in her as instinct in an animal…Why exactly had Ced stayed behind when she went to the beach?  All she could remember was something vague about business.”

The woman’s salon session continues.

    “She stared at her grotesque image.  There was a bright red spot on either cheek.  Her spirits plunged even lower…She never imagined he’d let her down.  What if he were serious and he wanted her to divorce him?  Her mind widened in horror.  That would take everything from her, her home, her background,, her position.  A woman could only divorce successfully if there was another man waiting for her. She would have to make a new life.  She was too tired, TOO OLD.”

But then her hair styling was done.

    “For a moment she forgot her troubles.  It was a beautiful wave, her head never looked better   She began to make up her face, rediscovering all its lost virtues…She, not he, was in the strong position.  If he wanted to be a fool, he’d have to pay for it.  She bent forward and looked into her own eyes, bright once more under the influence of eye shadow and mascara – and then she would win him back again.  While she had her looks she could do anything.  She had been through an ordeal but now she felt secure again.  She wasn’t even very angry.  She had put on again the whole armor of sophistication.  If anyone was going to look foolish it was Ced and Viola—especially Viola.”
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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by whisperinggums on November 18, 2009 at 11:25 AM

    Great story isn’t it? Here are some things I wrote about it when I read it:

    “What a sad picture of a marriage. We’ve got the picture here of that ‘stereotype’ of marriage between a passionate probably loving man and a repressed/uptight probably responsible woman. You can’t help but feel sorry for both of them. And I think this is what the story is about – about the basic failure of communication and her inability to confront something that is clearly lacking. All the beauty stuff is a metaphor I think for the fact that their marriage is all surface. In this sense, the line ‘You must suffer to be beautiful’ has a whole other meaning – in focusing on beauty and surface issues she/they are suffering emotionally/spiritually.”

    This is one of the few books that I have read twice. I’d happily read it again and look forward to your review of the book Tony.

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    • Hi whisperinggums,
      It is amazing what a writer can accomplish in 11 pages, isn’t it? Barnard telescopes the entire life of this woman into one trip to the beauty parlor. I guess I didn’t see the husband as a ‘passionate probably loving man’ or the wife as a ‘repressed / uptight probably responsible woman’. The husband and her friend Viola are having some fun on the side after he sends the woman away on holiday. In a moment of weakness when the woman questions her looks, she questions her whole life. But when she is put back together at the beauty parlor, she regains the strength and confidence to deal forcefully with the situation. Even men feel pretty great after they get a good haircut.

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  2. Posted by whisperinggums on November 18, 2009 at 2:23 PM

    Thanks Tony. What do you make then of this: ‘She’d never imagined that he would let her down. When they were first married she remembered that he had had all sorts of romantic ideas but she believed that she had cured them. They hadn’t quarrelled not ever. Sometimes he irritated her when she felt that he was begging for something that she didn’t know how to give, didn’t possess. But she always bit her annoyance down.’

    This is where I got my reading from, as I recollect…I agree that he was probably having a bit on the side with Viola but I also felt that she was “uptight” (to be euphemistic) and that he’d given up on her in terms of a loving relationship.

    I agree that she feels that she can cope again but I sense that it is a shallow coping rather than a deep understanding? (BTW glad you feel great after a haircut! I guess I hadn’t really thought about men and haircuts like before)

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    • Yeah, I don’t think he’d given up on Ida for a loving relationship, but just grabbed Viola because she was making herself easily available. I guess since the story is written from Ida’s point of view, I was entirely empathetic toward her. You might be right – Ida may have been too down on herself when she didn’t like the way she looked and too up on herself when she was satisfied with her looks.

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  3. Posted by whisperinggums on November 18, 2009 at 10:00 PM

    Well good for you for empathising with her! I must admit I started to but by the end wasn’t sure. Marjorie Barnard, herself, never married but had a serious relationship for a while with another Aussie writer, Frank Dalby Davison – and the break-down of that was I believe very painful so I wouldn’t be surprised if she wanted us to empathise with Ida. But maybe Barnard also wanted us the see the pressures on women at that time to “be” the pretty woman and that this could get in the way of being a true companion?

    (I created and wrote pretty well all of the Wikipedia article so did quite a bit of research about her life BUT I haven’t looked for scholarly articles on this. I might do that one day). Anyhow, I’m really glad you liked this story … I DO think she is great and way too overlooked here, let alone anywhere else in the world!

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  4. Posted by whisperinggums on November 19, 2009 at 10:04 PM

    Thanks Tony…I did quite a lot of research for that one. I did a lot of work on Wikipedia for a year or so – now blogging has taken some of my energy!! But I still do some Wikipedia work. It’s very satisfying…

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